Mad Hot Ballroom (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Mad Hot Ballroom is about ballroom dancing in the same way that Spellbound is about spelling bees and Hoop Dreams is about basketball. That is to say, tangentially. Although ballroom dancing forms the backdrop against which this uplifting documentary is set, Maryilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell's co-production is about much more. In particular, it's about the children we meet and the process of maturation they undergo. Children and ballroom dancing? You read that right. This is what happens in and around a school program that teaches New York City elementary schoolers how to swing, tango, and do the rumba.

Ten years ago, two New York City elementary schools introduced a pilot program that would make ten weeks of ballroom dancing a required course. By 2004, the year in which this film was recorded, more than 60 schools were enrolled in the program, whose teachers are provided by the American Ballroom Theater. At the end of the course, schools are given the opportunity to participate in a competition. Each school can provide five pairs (plus one alternate) to dance in five different styles: swing, the tango, the rumba, the merengue, and the foxtrot. Mad Hot Ballroom follows three schools on the long road from first class to final bow. They are: PS 150 from Tribeca, where many of the children come from homes split by divorce; PS 115 from Washington Heights, where 97% of the families are below the poverty line and drug dealers clog the streets at night; and PS 112 from Bensonhurst, a traditional Italian neighborhood that is now 50% Asian.

Most of the participants in the film are age 11, and, while that may be the perfect age at which children can learn complicated dances, it's also close to the onset of puberty. Girls and boys are uncertain about how to react to the opposite sex and the idea of touching one another, even for something as innocent as a dance move, is fraught with tension. Mad Hot Ballroom captures these first awkward moments, then shows us the growing confidence as partners become more accustomed to being with each other. When a teacher advises eye contact, the camera doesn't miss a moment of the inherent humor that ensues when some boys are unwilling to lock eyes with girls. Off the dance floor, boys chat about which girls they would like as "girlfriends" and girls remark which boys are cute.

Ultimately, Mad Hot Ballroom more about life than dancing. It's about how these children, many of whom lack self-confidence and are on the road toward delinquency, overcome challenges through this class. It's about teachers who devote themselves to their students with such passion that even talking about "their" boys and girls causes them to cry. And it's about the surprising racial harmony that exists in these situations, where skin color and ethnicity are rendered irrelevant. In diverse communities like Tribeca and Bensonhurst, it's not unusual for a black boy to be dancing with an Asian girl - nor are such pairings remarked upon.

The film, which was developed by Amy Sewell, then brought to the screen by Sewell and director Marilyn Agrelo, views things from a children's perspective. (Cinematographer Claudia Raschke held the camera at stomach-level to keep it level with the children's faces.) We see things through their eyes, and the point-of-view is often more straightforward and innocent than an adult might expect. Mad Hot Ballroom gives us a number of lively characters, such as outspoken Emma, tiny Tara, confident Jatnna, imposing Kelvin, and others. The adults are well represented, and include three dance teachers and their respective school liaisons.

Mad Hot Ballroom isn't just heartwarming and inspiring, it's a remarkable look at a group of children whose most noteworthy trait is that they are ordinary. In these students we can see the dilemmas and potential of every 11-year old across this country and around the world. By eschewing the verbosity of a narrator, Sewell and Agrelo distill this account to its essentials, and follow one of the prime rules of storytelling: show, don't tell. The clarity with which the film develops and follows its three-headed narrative, and the unforced ease with which it expresses its themes makes this a more compelling experience than the similarly structured Spellbound. And, even though the competition is ancillary to the personalities and their development, there's plenty of suspense and pathos in Mad Hot Ballroom's final 30 minutes. This is an amazing documentary achievement - easily as good, if not better, than any recent "feel good" fictional story that Hollywood has put on the screen.

Mad Hot Ballroom (United States, 2005)

Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Cast: The classes of PS 150, PS 115, and PS 112
Screenplay: Amy Sewell
Cinematography: Claudia Raschke
Music: Steven Lutvak
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-13
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1