Nonetheless, the dancing itself is fun to watch, both comical and genuinely touching, and any movie that captures some of the ineffable, magical process by which people learn is bound to be inspiring. There is also a glimpse at the ways class and ethnicity inform the lives of the city's children.
The young sophisticates of TriBeCa seem not only materially better off than their counterparts uptown or in Brooklyn, but also confident of their superiority. In spite of their teacher's concerns about foisting too much competition on them, they expect to win. The children of Washington Heights, on the other hand -- or at least their passionate, dynamic teacher -- feel as if they need to win. Their school district is one of Manhattan's poorest, comprised largely of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and the students' aspirations are shadowed by the realities of crime, poverty and broken families.
The richness of the material makes "Mad Hot Ballroom" both fascinating and frustrating. There are subplots that seem buried in the hectic routines of practice and competition. We hear testimony, toward the end, about how participation in the program has changed some of the children's lives, but we are unable to witness, or even to intuit, the transformation.
Ms. Agrelo and Ms. Sewell deserve praise for discovering and illuminating this delightful corner of an educational system that is often portrayed in the grimmest terms, but their execution falls a bit short.
"Mad Hot Ballroom" is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has some mild references to violence and sexuality.
Mad Hot Ballroom Opens today in Manhattan.
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo; written by Amy Sewell; director of photography, Claudia Raschke-Robinson; edited by Sabine Krayenbuehl; produced by Ms. Agrelo and Ms. Sewell; released by Paramount Classics. Running time: 105 minutes. This film is rated PG.
WITH: Allison Sheniak, Alex Tchassov, Emma Biegacki, Tara Devon Gallagher, Cyrus Hernstadt, Zeb Liburd, Victoria Malvagno, Michael Vaccaro, Jia Wen Zhu, Priscilla Kwong, Yomaira Reynoso, Rodney Lopez, Wilson Castillo, Jatnna Toribio, Elsamelys Ulerio and Kelvin Acevedo.Continue reading the main story
Mad Hot Ballroom is the new Spellbound, a thoroughly charming, uplifting, and inspiring documentary that celebrates youthful perseverance. In contrast to the pressure-cooker setting of the national spelling bee, though, filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell chronicle the annual fifth-grade ballroom dancing competition in New York City’s public school system, concluding with a citywide competition held at the World Financial Center.
The scenes of the boys and girls taking their tentative first steps to learn the merengue, the foxtrot, and the tango are irresistible. But Mad Hot Ballroom isn't just about dancing. As one teacher notes, the program -- now serving 6,000 students from more than 60 schools -- is “about etiquette and knowledge of cultures. It’s life.” It’s also about universal rites of passage, as students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds share their thoughts. It is especially moving to see the children gain confidence in their abilities and become, as another teacher notes, “ladies and gentlemen.”
The students from a school in Washington Heights -- the most recently immigrated and poorest kids in the contest -- carry the underdog banner, and it’s hard not to root for them. By the time Mad Hot Ballroom reaches the climactic competition, it’s impossible not to feel the eliminated dancers’ heartbreak, and the winners’ exhilaration. There are no villains in this documentary, and the dedicated teachers at each school burnish the image of public education while making a very strong argument for...