Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

I was going to say that anyone who is a teacher should go see this movie immediately, to get psyched for the coming school year. August, for teachers, is like a one-month-long Sunday night. You know that Sunday night feeling, when you know the weekend is over and what's facing you tomorrow? That's what all of August is like for us.

So when I see something that is as inspiring as "Mad Hot Ballroom," especially at this time of year, it's a wonderful reminder of why we do teach. Which is why I was going to recommend it to teachers.

But on second thought, I think I need to say that anyone who is a human being should go and see "Mad Hot Ballroom" immediately! It's a truly wonderful -- and wonderfully true -- story about 5th graders in NYC's five boroughs who take part in a 10-week ballroom dance program and ultimately go to a city-wide competition. It's a documentary, so these are not actors playing kids learning how to dance, and dealing with school, family, immigration issues, etc. These are real kids dealing with real issues, and really learning how to dance.

They are fabulous, and so is this movie.

I particularly loved one little boy in Washington Heights named Wilfredo, who had just moved to the US from the Dominican Republic and did not speak much English. But he could learn how to dance.... and when he walks into the World Financial Center's Winter Garden, the look on his face reminded me exactly of the look on Ibrahim Ferrer's face in the final shot of "The Buena Vista Social Club." They share the same innate grace and quiet dignity, and the same look of wonder and pride and amazement at where they are and what they have accomplished.

I also loved one sentence that the teacher at the Washington Heights school used to describe kids who didn't get the right attention when they were young -- "No lo bailaron cuando chiquito." "Nobody danced them when they were young. One of the things I love most about Latin cultures (most of them, anyway), is that you start dancing as soon as you can stand up (even before, really, in your parents' arms) and only stop when you die. Not like our culture here, where dancing has only a limited window in our lives.

I just spent an evening in the company of some 20,000 New Yorkers of Dominican descent, at the "Noche de Herencia Hispana" at a Mets game last week. Pedro Martinez was pitching, and after the game there was a concert by Aventura and by Frank Reyes -- who has a bachata hit in "Tu eres ajena", the merengue version of which (by Eddy Herrera) was prominently featured in the "Mad Hot Ballroom" finals. Shea Stadium was a sea of Dominican flags and Dominican pride, everyone was on their feet singing every word, and dancing, and when Pedro Martinez came out on the field while Frank Reyes was singing -- and started to dance -- the crowd went wild.

We have so, so much that we can learn from all the cultures that have come to this country. I hope that the dancing gene starts to work its way, by osmosis or by marriage, into the mainstream here!