Mad Hot Ballroom
directed by Marilyn Agrelo
(Nickelodeon, 2005)

The boy stands in an elementary school gymnasium, shakes his hand, shivers his shoulders and grimaces. You can almost read his mind:


He's just been directed to hold a girl's hand as part of his ballroom dance lessons and, in that brief moment, he encapsulates everything that's great about Mad Hot Ballroom.

The film, about students in New York City learning ballroom dance in school, looks at much more than dance lessons. It lets the kids explain what being 10 or 11 is like these days. It watches as they evolve from stumbling, bashful, reluctant dance partners into swiveling rumba stars. And it pulls you into their journey, making you care about these kids from three schools as they sweat their way toward a citywide dance competition.

They're from Bensonhurst, Washington Heights and Tribeca, a mix of economic levels and nationalities, and their teachers -- both classroom and dance -- use the lessons to prod their charges, to make them realize talents they never knew they had. That's the mark of a good teacher, and here we see all styles: the young idealist, the tough love instructor, the male dance instructor who, we get the impression, stands in for some absent fathers.

Mad Hot Ballroom starts with the first fumbling efforts: the "tango" that's more like a full-force lunge across the gym floor, muttering "t-a-ngo" out loud trying to get the rhythm, the 4-foot boys matched with 5-foot dance partners. Not every kid is a compliant student; not every kid wants to be there.

It's all candid, and what I enjoyed most about Mad Hot is the gift director Marilyn Agrelo and writer Amy Sewell give these kids: Agrelo and Sewell allow the kids to speak for themselves; they don't allow much false sentimentality to creep in and the kids, for their part, don't pander to the camera.

Over the documentary's course, these young dancers really learn their stuff (the tagline for Mad Hot: "Anyone can make it if they learn how to shake it" speaks for itself). You'll be in disbelief as Wilson, Elsamelys, Karina, Cyrus, Michael, Zeb, Jia Wen and a host of others learn how to tailor their hard-won skills into swing and merengue with personality all their own.

review by
Jen Kopf

5 May 2007

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