It's been two glorious weeks for us award-winning teachers. Last week I reviewed the documentary Rock School, a raucous romp with teens from Philly grooving Zappa all the way to Germany. This week's Mad Hot Ballroom shows the NYC public schools competing for top honors in ballroom dancing, a required course that lets students and teachers, supplied by the American Ballroom Theater, strut their best stuff in the tango, rumba, meringue, and foxtrot.
Like last year's Spellbound, everyone gets to show competitive spirit with low-level anguish at losing and testosterone-fueled joy at winning. The strength of Ballroom is the enthusiasm of teachers who have little to gain but the biggest prize of all--the success of their charges. Fairly absent is the dominance of stage-door parents in the spelling competition. Ballroom better captures the harmony that pervades a group project where the human body gracefully expresses its glory and young people experience perhaps for the first time the wonder of collective activity that ties them to peers and teachers and effaces their natural youthful loneliness, delinquent temptations, and fear of losing.
Some will criticize Ballroom for showing too many contestants and thereby losing the intimacy documentaries thrive on. Yet, the eventual winners stand out from the first moment they appear, almost exonerating director Agrelo from the intimacy requirement; also, that communal experience is better explained through the roving camera and long shots of their dancing. Although Ballroom may be too long by as much as 15 minutes, I admit I would have liked to linger more with some of the children to see how their lives have been changed by the experience; Agrelo lets the voice over take care of a couple of histories.
Cinematographer Claudia Raschke's camera, held level with the children's faces, does its own winning dance with us as viewing partners. You'll want to put on your dancing shoes after this film.