Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)


(director: Marilyn Agrelo; screenwriter: Amy Sewell; cinematographer: Claudia Raschke-Robinson; editor: Sabine Krayenbühl; cast: 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, Kelvin Acevedo; Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Ms. Agrelo/Ms. Sewell; Paramount Classics; 2005)
“I just wish the filmmaker did a better job putting it all together so it had more meaning as to the big “educational” picture.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A ballroom dance program organized by the American Ballroom Theater for fifth grade students in 60 New York City elementary schools, which was started in 1994 and offers an annual tournament to pick a winner and bestow an outsized trophy to their school. This is the subject matter for first-time director Marilyn Agrelo and screenwriter Amy Sewell, presenting an engaging crowd-pleaser but slight documentary that follows the eleven year olds from three diverse neighborhoods: the cosmopolitan Tribeca, middle-class Bensonhurst, and impoverished Washington Heights. The kids follow a rigorous 10-week training session of dance instruction; each school must divide into teams of five pairs of dancers for the final all-city competition, which are held at the World Financial Center in Manhattan. The film follows the familiar formulaic theme used in sports films: the underdog team must rise to the occasion in the big game. Though I can’t argue with anything that comes out as positive from a school system that has seen its better days, I still found it at times as awkward a watch as it must have been for some of the kids overcoming their shyness, being comfortable with the opposite sex, and learning how to dance more to please the judges than have fun.

The kids are taught by their dance instructors to rumba, tango, meringue, foxtrot and swing. Most attention is paid to the kids from the immigrant families coming from the Dominican Republic, representing a disadvantaged elementary school in Washington Heights that we are told most of the student body are from families below the poverty-line. Winning this competition is viewed as very important to helping their self-esteem and curbing their discipline problems. The kids here remind one of those same kind of nervy kids who were in Spellbound, except we don’t see the same drive for upward mobility.

The problem the filmmaker ran into was that the more articulate kids from Tribeca and Bensonhurst lost, and the kids who were the good dancers from Washington Heights weren’t that interesting. Therefore, though following the same narrative arc as Spellbound, this film in its second half when it followed the winners on their way to the finals turned dull and predictable for long stretches and never gave me the same satisfaction I got from the other documentary. The film almost completely ignored the parents, anything about the backgrounds of the children, any kind of in-depth probing into educational or social issues (such as kids from mixed races dancing together) and during the interviews drew mostly innocuous amusing comments from the students, such as the Washington Heights coeds saying they hope to marry someone with a good job who is not a drug dealer. The teachers talk up the competition as if it were a matter of life and death, trying to convince there was a real story here. Inevitably the film turns into a valentine for the teachers. Yomaira Reynoso’s passion for all her Dominican students comes through loud and clear, and gives voice that teachers who care can help turn things around for the better. The most positive thing I took away from the film is that a good educational system is essential if our country is to continue to prosper. I would just like to have seen a little more of what I should savor about this program when the music stopped and the dancing was over (it all seemed about winning the trophy and no life after that), as I felt short-changed by the film’s superficiality. But that’s not to say that the filmmaker doesn’t deserve credit for digging into an nontraditional program that seemed successful and highlighting it. I just wish the filmmaker did a better job putting it all together so it had more meaning as to the big “educational” picture.