May 27, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Chronicling New York City public schools' fifth-grade ballroom dance program, director Marilyn Agrelo's documentary Mad Hot Ballroom follows students from three neighbourhoods of dissimilar ethnic and economic make-ups as they undergo 10 weeks of rehearsals leading to a citywide contest. Kids in affluent Tribeca giggle over the prospect of mingling with the opposite sex. Children reconcile their racial and religious differences in diverse Bensonhurst. For the impoverished and predominantly Dominican youths of Washington Heights, dance dips into their potential and initiates their self-respect.

The film invites easy but apt comparisons to other features that spin in the world of competition involving kids or the ballroom: Fame, Shall We Dance? - not to mention Spellbound and Strictly Ballroom, as cited by Ken Turan of the Los Angeles Times. Underpinning themes of the positive influence of the arts, hopes of upward social mobility and multicultural upbringings depicted in Mad Hot Ballroom also bring to mind many other films, such as Our Song, OT: Our Town, Born Into Brothels, Hoop Dreams and Raising Victor Vargas. But Agrelo's film does offer its own unique glimpse of pre-teen views on gender roles, competition and success.

Overbearing and meddling parents seen in Spellbound and "Showbiz Moms & Dads" are absent here. The kids' spontaneous observations are amusing, but they also nonchalantly address harsher aspects of their reality - including adulterous parents and teenage pregnancies, as well as drug dealers and latent sexual predators on the streets. Washington Heights principal Clarita Zeppie said that 97 per cent of her students are from poverty-level families, and ballroom dance has turned many troubled kids who have never had encouragement at home into goal-driven leaders. When selecting teams to enter the contest, the teary and distraught Tribeca teacher Allison Sheniak says, "They are all my kids. I feel like they are turning into ladies and gentlemen."

Agrelo stumbles onto - then sidesteps - some fascinating dynamics, like teachers ignoring their own male-female dance-partner rule after an administrative meeting, and the promising dancer Jonny branding Spanish-speaking Wilson "gay" before quitting ballroom altogether to pursue basketball. The film feels slightly incomplete, as it relies on teaching staff to put into perspective the students' transformations rather than following them extensively to record examples. Still, the director's fluid hand-held close-ups gracefully capture the children's mesmerizing unspoken communication. And few will be able to resist their adorable dedication and infectious enthusiasm.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.