My favorite dance documentary hasn’t been made yet.
Mad Hot Ballroom, released to critical acclaim in 2005, chronicled a semester of Pierre Dulaine’s Dancing Classrooms program, in which New York City elementary schools participate in a ballroom dance curriculum, then compete against each other to send teams to the Colors of the Rainbow competition. The students who emerged as early frontrunners were from P.S. 115, a school that considers many of its students disadvantaged or at risk; the principal mentions that 97 percent of fifth-graders are in families living at the poverty level. Though several students from other highlighted schools are suitably precocious, this is the one at which hot topics include avoiding drug dealers, gangs and the uncertainty of making it through high school. But for Ballroom purposes, their dancing was head and shoulders above the competition so early that the outcome became a foregone conclusion. As they blew away the competition at the Colors of the Rainbow, teachers and parents lent voiceovers about the ways in which the program had changed the personalities and seemingly solved the problems of several students who’d been on the verge of academic and disciplinary problems. Their final slow-motion triumph suggests a lifestyle opened to them through the dance floor.
But we don’t know that. Mad Hot Ballroom was made in the moment, for the moment—and though there’s evidence aplenty of the importance of this program in instilling a particular brand of performative gentility, there’s not so much as a coda revisiting what became of the fan favorites, even in the short term. My favorite dance documentary is still to be filmed, and it reveals what’s happened to those kids in the intervening years: the extent to which reluctant parents supported their children’s sudden interests and talents, the degree to which the arts became part of the curriculum after the Colors of the Rainbow, the friendships that might have held fast across a decade, plus the kids for whom it was a passing moment and those for whom a swing and a tango changed the course of their entire lives.
Obviously, it’s often impossible for a documentary to get the closure its subject deserves, as the length of time necessary to understand long-term effects requires overt planning. Usually one’s more likely to see this in a nature documentary that’s filmed over a longer time period to begin with, like the several-years’ window of Chasing Ice, or in biographical documentaries more directly concerned with the effects of time, as in the famous Seven Up series. And of course, it’s entirely possible that a handful of children who didn’t mind the cameras in fifth grade might, for whatever reason, be uninterested now. But the topic feels important enough to warrant a postscript; the students in question were certainly compelling enough to make their champion class worth revisiting. The kids of P.S. 115 were at crucial disadvantages. If this dance program was a weapon against the many unfairnesses they faced, that’s worth a movie all its own. Maybe that’s why a sequel’s never been made—it would take the wind out of some pretty feel-good sails—but even then, the story still feels incomplete not knowing.
Perhaps the most compelling subject in the Dulaine-drenched Dancing in Jaffa is Noor, a Palestinian girl whose despair is so palpable, it’s nearly audible in the frame. She’s lost her father; she feels disconnected from her mother, and she’s reprimanded for hostility at school. Her family’s economically strained; she weeps watching police action at a tense protest.
And after she joins the program, boys refuse to dance with her—a final humiliation. But Noor gets a partner (the logistics of which aren’t shown), blossoms in confidence and makes friends. When Dulaine stops by to say farewell, she demonstrates Arabic dancing, and he praises her talent as the music swells. She hugs him, the very image of promise.
The movie offers a brief coda about the success of the program in the years since the documentary was filmed. What’s happened to her since, we never learn.
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