Thursday, May 12, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

MAD HOT BALLROOM (Marilyn Agrelo, 2005)

MAD HOT BALLROOM documents precocious fifth graders in the New York public school system learning how to dance and the teachers who are passionate about the Dancing Classrooms program. It's exactly the sort of film for which "feel-good" and "crowd-pleasing" were intended. At the risk of sounding like a grouch, I was bored more than I was charmed.

Director Marilyn Agrelo tracks the progress at schools in Bensonhurst, Tribeca, and Washington Heights as the students learn ballroom dances in preparation for the citywide competition. The children are taught the tango, rumba, swing, foxtrot, and merengue. More than sixty schools take part in the contest, but the purpose of the program isn't winning a trophy but exposing the children to the arts and instilling confidence and discipline.

Dancing is MAD HOT BALLROOM'S focus, but Agrelo also observes how the kids, on the cusp of interest in dating, grow into their gender roles. The fifth graders are still young enough that they don't seem self-conscious in front of the camera or around one another, but most acknowledge, often in humorous ways, that they're aware of the feelings that they have for members of the opposite sex. The girls seem savvier than the boys, which, as loquacious fifth grader Emma would tell you, shouldn't come as a surprise.

Unlike SPELLBOUND, another documentary about children in competition, MAD HOT BALLROOM doesn't acquaint us very well with the kids. Many are interviewed, and some stand out more than others. The uncommonly serious Cyrus, theory-filled Emma, and Wilson, the smoothest of all the dancers, make the strongest impressions, but we get to know them as types more than as individuals.

MAD HOT BALLROOM falls into the trap that the teachers avoid. The competition becomes the center of attention, and that's when the film falls into a numbing repetition. Since three schools' progress must be followed, we see each competing in the rounds leading up to and including the finals. At the finals Agrelo shows each dance more or less in its entirety, the alternates getting their chance to shine, and then the dance-off to determine the winner among the three finalists awarded the gold level of achievement. With school funding crises forcing districts to chop arts programs, it's understandable why Agrelo would want to show Dancing Classrooms' impact on these children, but at 110 minutes, the film is much longer than it needs to be. The kids are cute and the intentions are good, but ultimately MAD HOT BALLROOM plays like a teacher's presentation to the school board about the importance of arts education.

Grade: C

(Review originally appeared in a slightly different form as part of my Deep Focus Film Fest day 3 coverage)

1 comment:

  1. We went to see Mad HOT Ballroom (for the trailer of the film, please see The movie was showing at the Cumberland Theatre in downtown Toronto, and is run by Alliance Atlantis, so there were other more "artsy" movies being shown. Well, it was worth the drive and wait!

    The audience was primarily made up of people in their 50's to 70's, at least during the time we went. There were quite a number of "tourists" as well, probably from the local Hyatt and Four Seasons Hotels in the area.

    What we loved about the movie was that it captured the "innocence" of children and the passion of their "teachers". It was interesting to see from a child's eye their determination to want to make the finals ... the disappointment of those who didn't and the exhiliration of those that did.

    What we also loved was the diversity of cultures represented by the children ... hispanic, black, white, vietnamese, chinese, etc. ... and how they were partnered. In one scene, it showed two children who may have been of Muslim faith, who seemed to indicate that it was against their religion to dance. However, instead of trying to make a "moral" statement, the producers captured a moment where the child exclaimed that he enjoyed being the "DJ" and taking care of the music! In one scene, it even showed him trying to correct one of the other couples!

    Some of the invited judges in the Grand finals included Charlotte Jorgensen as well as Broadway star, Ann Reinking. It was lovely to see them and other well-known judges in the Dance world, being captivated by the various dance teams.

    What could have been done differently? Possibly showing more the "day-to-day" living side of some of the children. A number of the children talked about "drugs". Although we're not familiar with the various urban neighbourhoods of New York City, if it's like many "urban" centres in other cities, it would have been interesting to contrast the "urban decay", and how something like the experience of dance can be "life-changing" for the children. It would also have been interesting to interview some of the children who took part in the first program (think it was in 1994) ... in keeping with the film's
    positive perspective, maybe a "success" story.

    There was a British Show a number of years ago that traced children through the decades (can't remember the title) ... their innocence in primary school, to their teenage years, and finally onto adulthood. It would be fascinating to revisit these wonderful children to see where they may end up a decade from now.

    DanceScape has a Mad HOT Ballroom contest for an American Express Cash Gift Card as well as Soundtracks to the movie! Check out

    For those of you who also watched the movie, please share your thoughts as well on our Global Forums at
    dance is ... PASSION