Thursday, May 19, 2005

“Mad Hot Ballroom,” an oddly overheated title for an endearing subject, distills a semester of ballroom dance instruction and competition among fifth-grade students in New York City public schools.

Unlike many documentary features, “Ballroom” reflects a relatively recent and compact time frame, just last spring. This alacrity enlarges one’s respect for the collaborators.

Producer-writer Amy Sewell had a head start on the project. A resident of the Tribeca neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, she wrote a freelance newspaper article two years ago about dance classes in a local school, P.S. 150.

The school system had begun experimenting with mandatory dance classes about a decade earlier. Instruction was subcontracted to a nonprofit organization, American Ballroom Theater.

The program has since expanded to about 60 schools. It runs for 20 weeks and aims for beginning skill in five steps: merengue, fox trot, rumba, tango and swing. Participating schools contribute teams to borough-wide prelims that conclude with a “grand final” at the World Financial Center in June.

Miss Sewell, who had no movie experience, pitched a cinematic expansion of her article to Marilyn Agrelo, a Cuban-American active in documentary production for several years but still without a completed feature to her credit. They raised adequate financing (largely through private and family backers) and were ready to go when the 2004 renewal of “Dancing Classrooms” began.

P.S. 150 remained in the movie survey, joined by schools from Washington Heights, now a predominantly Dominican neighborhood; and the Brooklyn area of Bensonhurst, traditionally Italian and recently a magnet for Asian immigrants. This three-way stretch gave the project a more demanding but also promising ethnic and socio-economic format.

In many respects the movie has such a straightforward charm and appeal that it seems deceptively effortless; Miss Agrelo and her crew quickly establish a humorous rapport with students, teachers and instructors from every location. As the lessons and the students’ reactions accumulate, the concept proves irresistible.

The most winning personalities seem to attend P.S. 150, but this impression may reflect a greater fluency in English among its student body. In any pool of precocious 10-year-olds it would be difficult to deny serene Amber, opinionated Emma or pint-sized Michael, who enjoys pontificating at the foosball table.

During a priceless interlude at the quarter-finals, Michael finds himself stuck with a towering partner. His shock and awe rival the moment in the great, forgotten service comedy “Operation Mad Ball” when Mickey Rooney, as a splendidly wacky noncom, is introduced to an Amazonian Army nurse.

The P.S. 150 youngsters also have a memorably softhearted teacher, whose solicitude for her brood is so intense that the thought of the competitive dance season is painful to her. She’s got a point: The competition does seem superfluous until the movie is within sight of a fade-out. Its best possibilities are realized when certain awkward youngsters acquire confidence in themselves as a result of dance lessons.

P.S. 115, the Washington Heights school, makes a run at the city championship, a development the filmmakers can’t ignore. Dictated by chance, this belated plot twist gives the movie elements of underdog cliche from “Rocky” and “The Bad News Bears” that seem less satisfying than the classroom epiphanies.

Emotionally, “Mad Hot Ballroom” would be no less satisfying if it ended 20 minutes earlier. Either way expect a sweetheart of a memoir.


TITLE: “Mad Hot Ballroom”

RATING: PG (Fleeting allusions to troubled social or family conditions in a documentary context; no objectionable language or depiction)

CREDITS: Directed by Marilyn Agrelo. Written by Amy Sewell. Produced by Miss Agrelo and Miss Sewell. Cinematography by Claudia Raschke-Robinson. Editing by Sabine Krayenbuehl.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes


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