When I was in junior high, I hated watching The Wonder Years. Kevin Arnold’s awkward first kiss was not charming or cathartic, just a painful reminder that I was a good five years away from even a peck on the cheek. And I suspect that now, if there were a movie or TV show about a 28-year-old “emerging” writer with a girlfriend, two cats and a handful of neuroses-she-hoped-were-charming, I would find it equally stressful. The girl on the show would probably get her novel published long before me.
But movies about awkward 11-year-olds? Bring ‘em on!
I watched Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a competitive ballroom dance program in New York’s public schools, with my friend Heather, whom I’ve known since our respective band geek and drill team dork days. From our vantage point of 20-something confidence, it was delightful to watch these sixth graders transform their urban ragamuffin awkwardness into sophisticated grace. They swing and tango joyfully, but still look like the half-grown kittens that they are, lanky-limed, chipmunk-cheeked, buck-toothed and beautiful.
I saw a little of myself in Emma, a precocious and frequently obnoxious girl with shaggy bangs and a tendency to spout facts like, “Did you know that statistically 11-year-old girls are the number one target of kidnappers?” Emma dances fairly well, mainly, I think, because she’s a competitive little thing.
But the ultimate stars of the movie are the mostly Dominican kids from Washington Heights. They’re socioeconomic underdogs, but their dancing is both mad and hot. Their teacher, Yomaira, is a bit of a stage mom, but her love for the kids trumps (and sometimes begets) her pushiness. She and the ballroom instructors repeat the party line, which is that It’s Not About The Competition. The kids learn to parrot this statement, but, well, it sort of is. The documentary reaffirms this by focusing a lot on the winning team. If it weren’t about the five-foot-tall grand prize trophy, wouldn’t we see more of the silver team?
Still, I think legislators should watch this movie next time they get in a “standards-based,” reading-and-math-only mood. If watching Wilson, a shy new kid who barely speaks English, blossom into a miniature Fred Astaire whose classmates shower him with hugs doesn’t convince them of the benefits of arts funding…well, maybe just tapping their feet to the film’s contagious swing and meringue music will.