This truly charming 2005 documentary follows 11-year-old New York City kids as they learn ballroom dancing and take part in a city-wide dance competition.
Ballroom dancing was introduced into the New York City educational system in 1994 by Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, much-decorated professional dancers who believed that children could learn important things that would serve them well in life while studying dance. They began the program in two schools, and it was so successful that it now reaches over 20,000 students in the city through their outreach porgram, Dancing Classrooms. In over 68 schools, 10 and 11-year-olds learn merengue, rumba, tango, foxtrot, and swing, as well as valuable lessons in etiquette and politeness. Their classroom teachers, assisted by Dancing Classrooms' instructors, lead the children through ten weeks of compulsory lessons, after which schools have the option of taking part in the city-wide Rainbow Team Matches. Five couples from each school - one for each of the dances (backed up by an alternate couple who know all the dances and wait in the wings in case of illness) - compete in a tense round of quarter-finals and semi-finals, vying for the chance to be one of nine teams in the final round. One of those teams will take home the giant trophy for the year.
The film focuses on three public schools: P.S. 150, in Tribeca, populated by verbal, confident, multi-cultural kids; P.S. 115, in Washington Heights, largely poor immigrants from the Dominican; and P.S. 112, in Bensonhurst, a mix of Italians and Asians. Last year P.S. 115 made it to the final round but did not take home the trophy, and this year they want to go all the way.
The director (Marilyn Agrelo in her feature debut) followed the children to classroom, dance class, playground, and home, getting wonderful candid footage of them. They take joy in playing and having fun, and worry about the competition coming up. They discuss how dancing brings in a new, more tender side to their interactions, and weigh in on their futures as adults - girls discuss what's strange about being a girl (having long hair, suggests one; getting pregnant and having babies, pronounces another); while the boys worry about growing up (you get hair in weird places, have to shower, like, twice a day, and don't change your sheets when you pee). They are at the cusp of teenagehood but revel in being children for a little while longer.
Wonderful too are the educators. Two of the classroom teachers are moved to tears discussing their hopes and dreams for their charges; the one from Washington Heights is particularly moving with the tough but tender love she obviously shows her students. The Dancing Classrooms instructors work hard with the young "ladies and gentlemen", polishing their steps and reminding them to be neat, civil, and respectful to each other.
By the time the competition rolls around the viewer is rooting for all the featured schools, though it's obvious the Washington Heights kids are head and shoulders above the others. Particularly heartbreaking is watching the Tribeca kids receive a bronze placing in the quarter-finals; they think they have done really well, then dissolve into tears when they realize that only the gold level teams move on to the semi-finals. Back in class they express confusion and disappointment that they did everything just as they were taught yet still weren't good enough: they've learned a valuable - and painful - lesson about life.
The Washington Heights kids move with incredible style and grace and make it to the finals; they end up one of the three gold level teams competing for the trophy. Will they reach their elusive goal? You'll have to watch the film to find out. It's worth it: this is a wonderful documentary full of warmth, charm, and wit.
In 2006 Hollywood did what it does best, releasing a fictionalized version of this story, "Take the Lead", with Antonio Banderas as Dulaine. In this telling the kids are 17, which beautiful young adults to be cast in the student roles, thereby upping the eye candy quotient but losing much of the delight of the real thing. It's an okay movie, but this documentary is much better.
For more on the film, see http://www.paramountvantage.com/madhot/index-site.html
For more on Dancing Classrooms, see http://americanballroomtheater.com/.