Marilyn Agrelo’s charming documentary about New York City school kids learning to ballroom dance—and performing in a city-wide competition—has a poignancy that comes partly from its subject matter and partly from its glancing approach to what may be an overabundance of thematic possibilities.
Agrelo and producer-writer Amy Sewell followed dance teams from three New York public schools that were participating in a special program for 11- and 12-year-olds, and they came up with intriguing material on a variety of topics. Pre-teen kids learning the discipline and styles of ballroom dancing is the most obviously appealing of the film’s subjects, but Mad Hot Ballroom also gives us glimpses of contemporary New York with its cultural diversity, its post-9/11 anxieties about the future and its distinctly American struggles with issues of race, gender, class, education and youth culture.
Perhaps unavoidably, the onscreen results can only allude to all those issues as part of the emerging picture of the kids, the dance classes and the subsequent city-wide competitions. But what does come through most emphatically is a kind of collective portrait, a neatly observed series of mini-portraits in which youngsters approaching the teen years talk about and react to their dance experiences as well as everything else they’re going through at that stage.
Parents and teachers are intermittently part of the picture too, but Mad Hot Ballroom is particularly memorable when it’s giving us affectionate glimpses of innocence, awkwardness, naivetà, eagerness and delight—and the occasionally precocious insight—in the kids themselves.
The music and the dancing—and the unfolding competitions—give the film a certain continuity and narrative order, but ultimately this production is organized around the emotions of its observed characters, children and adults alike, and Agrelo’s deft editing is shrewdly and consistently geared to feel-good emotional appeal.