A few words about . . . Mad Hot Ballroom

The film: Despite the appearance of its title, Mad Hot Ballroom is neither mad nor hot. That’s a good thing, because this sweet documentary about New York fifth graders taking part in a city-wide ballroom dance competition would take on quite a different tack altogether if the kids started to do much more than dancing.

This sweet little film looks in on several public schools as the children take a required 10-week course in introductory ballroom dancing. It’s fun to watch these kids learn the moves and put their best feet forward (literally) as they prepare for the upcoming competition. Some of them take the whole matter quite seriously, and the film contains scenes where we watch them practice their steps in the living room, in front of the bedroom mirror, and on the school playground. Their parents and teachers just seem thrilled that their children aren’t out slumming on the streets; one of the school principals interviewed notes that 97% of the enrolled children come from families in poverty. That’s a staggering number, a sobering statistic which lends a bit of gravitas to all the fun goings-on. If these kids aren’t dancing, how else might they spend their time?

Some of the best scenes in the first half of the film take place away from the classroom, in the world of the children. Here, they talk candidly about a whole range of subjects (mostly about the opposite sex), and I was struck by the innocence of their perceptions of themselves and others. It’s a poignant reminder of how living in an adult world tends to make you more cynical about things. How grateful I am that children don’t come into this world already jaded by it; they remind us big people of just how pure and clean things ought to be.

The second half of the film picks up the pace as we accompany the different schools through the stages of competition. One of the schools profiled makes it to the finals; other schools don’t, and we feel their disappointment keenly. What happens at the final competition makes for quite compelling viewing, although as a whole the film doesn’t offer the same level of white-knuckle intensity as Spellbound, that great documentary about eight kids participating in the National Spelling Bee. Mad Hot Ballroom ends with a celebration, but the film is about more than preparing for competition (although a few of the dance teachers involved might say otherwise) – it’s about how such a thing as ballroom dancing can have a transformative effect on a bunch of 10- and 11-year-olds, getting them off the street and helping create habits which will lead to a fuller, more productive life.

Image quality: Sadly, the DVD for this movie does not boast a high-quality image. Contrast is pumped up way too high, which leads to blown-out whites and reds. My guess is that the studio technician was trying to compensate for the low-tech videotaping equipment. It’s a passable effort, but hardly par with the level of today’s transfers.

Sound quality: The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix sounds fine, though it’s surprising that Paramount didn’t spring for a full-blown 5.1 mix for the DVD. The added spaciousness of the surround format could have helped the music numbers sound a bit more dynamic, so its absence is a minor disappointment.

Overall: This is a fine little film that’s well worth at least a rental.

PG for thematic elements. This movie (co-produced by Nickelodeon) is suitable for all ages, in my opinion.

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