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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Power of Dance
by Betty Jo Tucker

Showcasing the New York Public School’s dance competition for youngsters, Mad Hot Ballroom proves how involved students can become in an activity if motivated by caring and dedicated teachers. It also reveals the positive behavior changes resulting from participating in such a worthwhile project.

“Dancing makes you feel nice; it energizes you,” says one of the fifth grade boys filmed in this 2005 documentary, a movie of surprising depth and entertainment value

Energize is right! Tango, meringue, foxtrot, rumba and swing -- all must be mastered by these pre-teens in order to win medals for their school, not to mention the huge, coveted Challenge Trophy. The dancers, kids of many shapes and sizes, represent various racial and ethnic groups. They start out awkwardly but gradually become more confident -- and some emerge as truly outstanding dancers. Because men as well as women teachers work with the students, the boys seem to accept dancing more readily than I expected.  As one male teacher explains, “Boys today don’t have a role model like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.”

In between dance classes, the children discuss their lives and feelings, sometimes with wisdom beyond their age. The girls talk about boys; the boys talk about girls. And both groups talk about their future -- and, of course, their enthusiastic reactions to the ballroom dance competition.  

Because dance has always been important to me, I’m encouraged by such renewed interest in ballroom dancing --  and not just in America. Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann’s Australian hit, may have started this resurgence. In Japan, director Mayasuki Suo’s delightful movie Shall We Dansu? caused a significant increase in the number of Japanese citizens taking ballroom dance lessons. The American remake, Shall We Dance (starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon), produced similar results here in the U.S. And what’s the most popular TV offering this summer? Dancing with the Stars, a show focusing on ballroom dance competition.

I think the enormous appeal of ballroom dancing comes from its emphasis on social cooperation, discipline (“Even when I’m not dancing, I’m going over the steps in my head,” declares one student), and elegance. Adding competition into the mix makes it a surefire recipe for success as an educational tool. And, I almost forgot, it’s such fun!

Kudos to director Marilyn Agrelo, writer Amy Sewell and all those wonderful students and teachers of Mad Hot Ballroom. Not since watching Spellbound have I felt this much faith in the youth of today. 

(Released by Paramount Classics and rated “PG” for some thematic elements.)

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