Judging from the theatrical trailers for Mad Hot Ballroom, one might expect to encounter yet another kids-in-showbiz tale (common on TV) of obsessive coaches, unbalanced stage moms, and children engaged in uncomfortably unnatural activities.
But, thankfully, that's not what this winning documentary is about at all. Mad Hot Ballroom (rated PG for some thematic elements) instead follows three fifth-grade ballroom dancing classes from three very different New York City public schools, leading up to a big, city-wide dance competition. The film is a thoroughly entertaining, if limited, look at inner-city schools, fifth-grade life, and, naturally, competitive ballroom dancing.
The fact that fifth-graders in New York City take ballroom dancing in school is the film's first surprise. The Dancing Classrooms program is sponsored by the American Ballroom Theater and includes more than 60 schools in the city.
Director Marilyn Agrelo follows three of them, P.S. 112 from Bensonhurst, P.S. 115 from Washington Heights, and P.S. 150 from Tribeca. The classes are self-contained, "phys-ed" periods during which the 10- and 11-year-olds learn to tango, merengue, rumba, and foxtrot. The most promising students in each class are then chosen to compete in a series of competitions that culminate in a championship at the World Financial Center.
Mad Hot Ballroom begins with a principal of one of the schools explaining that she doesn't particularly like "hard competition" and "winning" (almost as if they're dirty words), but has stuck with the ballroom dancing program because of the obvious rewards. And it's easy to see why. As these pre-pre-teens progress through the course, they learn the benefits of discipline, the thrill of investing time and energy into learning, and even begin to see each other differently.
In candid side interviews we get glimpses of what these kids think of the opposite sex, the oddity of dancing, and their neighborhoods and families. Fifth-graders are ideal subjects for this sort of thing-not only do the radically different developmental stages of the age provide for some humorous pairings, but there's a sweetness in their fresh, unhardened view of the world.