“Can I have the gentlemen tuck in their shirts, please?”
This is a question politely but firmly addressed to a group of underprivleged 5th graders in New York. And not in the 1950’s. Now. The 10 year old “gentlemen” do tuck in their shirts. And then they take their partners and they do the merengue and the foxtrot and the tango. They bow to their partners. And they love it.
A program to teach ballroom dancing to New York City 5th graders in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens sounds like the last thing in the world that would be interesting or relevant to today’s 5th graders. But the beauty of this movie is the way that it shows that grace, dignity, elegance, and pride in mastering a skill are important and as thrilling and transformational.
Fifth grade turns out to be the perfect age for these classes. The kids are old enough to pay attention and follow complex directions, but young enough that they’re not yet “too cool for school.” They’re willing to give the adults the benefit of the doubt and aren’t yet worried about looking dorky.
The movie follows teams through the year, from the early lessons through the citywide competition. There are brief scenes with the kids talking about dancing and about their lives. Whether repeating what they’ve been told or drawing their own conclusions about protecting themselves or about boy-girl relations, or how people become drug dealers because their parents don’t care, they are ineffably bright and endearing and filled with promise.
There are interviews with the teachers, two of whom begin to cry when they talk about how much they care about their students and what it feels like to see them try so hard and want so much. There are other glimpses of the life beyond the dance floor — a child whose religion prohibits dancing is assigned to act as DJ, a group of girls go shopping for skirts to wear to the competition and are told there is no way they are going to be showing their belly buttons. But the heart of the movie is seeing the kids learn to move to the music, to feel the rhythm, to learn the steps, to feel comfortable on the dance floor.
Just at an age when the difference between girls and boys is beginning to feel even more different, these children are told to hold onto each other, work closely together, and look into each other’s eyes “like it’s the last time in your life” (even when a boy only comes up to a girl’s shoulder) and smile at each other.
The teachers worry about whether it will harm the children’s self-esteem to participate in a very tough competition. Though the kids gamely promise not to “boast and brag about it because it will make other people feel worthless” in pre-competition discussion,” when the time comes some of those who don’t win are heartbroken. So are we. But the children learn what it means to be a part of something big, to give their hearts to it, and that losing is not the end of the world, and that’s almost as important as learning the merengue and the tango.
Parents should know that the children in this movie speak frankly (but briefly) about protecting themselves from child molesters and drug dealers. There are also references to pregnancy, puberty, and gay marriage. One of the strengths of the movie is its portrayal of diverse students and teachers and its recognition of the importance of male role models who show the boys it is all right to dance.
Families who see this movie should talk about the different views the teachers have about the benefits of competition. What is the most important thing the children learned from the dance lessons?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the documentaries To Be and to Have (about a one room schoolhouse in France), Paper Clips (about a small-town school’s study of the Holocaust), Spellbound (spelling bee), Small Wonders (violin), and the Oscar-winning He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (ballet dancing). They will also enjoy the UP series of documentaries that track a group of English children every seven years from ages 7 to 42. The next film in the series, “49 Up,” is currently in production. And they may enjoy seeing Strictly Ballroom, Top Hat and other movies with great dancing.