Mad Hot Ballroom sweetly captures the essence of a non-profit program to bring ballroom dance into New York City's public grade schools. Director Marilyn Agrelo follows three classrooms of eleven-year-olds as they learn the merengue, rumba, tango, swing, and foxtrot, then cross their fingers to be selected for a culminating citywide competition.
Applying a delicate touch, Agrelo gets the kids to be themselves on camera and tells it like it is. The spectre of drugs is on the minds of some of these city kids, but they plainly hope for the best, as when aspiring performer Tara points across the water to the New York skyline and exults, "It all happens there." The characterization of the children is catch as catch can, with some kids betraying themselves more through behavior than words.
Agrelo bests Paper Clips at turning students into recognizable people, but she also drops the ball on her prized subject Wilson, a beaming Dominican boy. Though Wilson seems to be naturally quiet due to his language barrier, Agrelo seems content not to present even subtitled interview footage, meaning her star player remains an exotic cipher. That may be an effective dramatic tactic, but it's a documentary misstep.
A classroom teacher sniffs, "I see them turning into these ladies and gentlemen," but there are downsides as the kids navigate the ups and downs of competition and try to gain perspective on wins and losses. At least one instructor is scarily wrapped up in winning, and the early inklings of social pressures are bittersweet as the kids contemplate attractions (one instructor also barks reminders of gender posturing: "James Bond and Halle Berry!").
The film climaxes with the championship competition before an enthusiastic audience and a judging panel that includes Ann Reinking. Though Agrelo blunts the competitive drama by visually excluding the opposition, the kids' talent and infectious spirit carries the day for Mad Hot Ballroom.
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