Mad Hot Ballroom

Mix a bunch of kids with the world of ballroom dancing and the result is Mad Hot Ballroom, Marilyn Agrelo's documentary about a program in New York City's public school system. Agrelo looks at three very different schools, Washington Heights' P.S. 115, composed primarily of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, the Italian/Asian P.S. 112 of Bensonhurst, and P.S. 150 of Tribeca. Agrelo and screenwriter Amy Sewell track these three teams over the course of ten weeks, as they learn the dances, hone their skills, and finally enter the competition. In that time, the students must lean the foxtrot, swing, tango, rumba, and the merengue. The most obvious comparison is to Spellbound, and in this respect, Mad Hot Ballroom falls short. Nevertheless, it is still an enjoyable experience.

Most of this is due to the children. Children say whatever is on their mind, regardless of if it is the proper thing to say. As a result, Agrelo is able to capture many priceless remarks, both insightful and just plain funny. She tempers this with some serious comments that belie how dangerous some of their lives are. One girl mentions that she wants a boyfriend who is not a drug dealer. Superficially, this sounds funny, but Agrelo points out that many of the children in Washington Heights deal with this on a daily basis. Wilson is a recent immigrant who speaks little English, but comes alive when he dances. Emma always has some interesting information to convey. Michael is the obnoxious little loudmouth that most people will probably find cute.

Ballroom dancing is not the most obvious choice for children, especially boys. Yet, it teaches them discipline and keeps them active and involved in school. Most of the children are eleven, right on the cusp of puberty, and beginning to think about the opposite sex. Agrelo focuses on a few children from each school, giving the viewer a glimpse at their lives outside of school, and plenty of footage of the three schools readying for the competition.

Mad Hot Ballroom does tend to drag because it is overly long, and because it relies a bit too much on the 'cute' factor to generate laughs. Agrelo spends a lot of time in the initial stages of practice, then jumps forward quickly before settling down on the competition. Oddly enough, the competition is not that compelling. It doesn't really matter if P.S. 150 is able to better their second place finish last year. The fun part is watching the kids try to dance, their reactions to what happens, and of course, their comments. The end of the film brings some real emotion; when Agrelo interviews the teachers. All of the want their children to succeed, and they see ballroom dancing as a first step to give them confidence or keep them away from drugs. The teachers, including Yomaira Reynoso and Allison Sheniak, truly love their children, and are the real stars of the movie.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 50 minutes, Rated PG for some thematic elements.

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