Some of the most entertaining documentaries come from the most random topics, such as Mad Hot Ballroom, which approaches the seemingly archaic sport by following adorable, urban NYC kids transform from awkward dancers into “ladies and gentlemen," as they prepare for a citywide dancing competition. While Gothamist has little interest in the world of professional dancing, we saw this captivating film a few weeks ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. We suggest catching Friday night’s exclusive at City Cinemas, 60th St. & 3rd Avenue, to meet the filmmakers after the 7:00pm and 7:45pm shows.
At first, the film profiles three schools: Tribeca’s multi-cultural PS 150, Washington Height’s working-class, Dominican Republican PS 115, and Brooklyn’s half-Italian, half-Asian PS 112. The schools' dance rehearsals and pep talks ("gentlemen, where's my tango face?") introduce the instructors and students, revealing their strong, charming personalities within the context of explaining their interest and hopes for ballroom dancing. Slowly, audience members witness participants' progress, growing more mature and refined with each rumba and swing. All the while, we're acquainted with the neighborhoods through shots & close-ups of streets and skylines. “The always present urban backdrop embodied a main character,” explained director Marilyn Agrelo. “My idea was to create portraits of the city that would frame a scene or sequence of scenes, always reminding the audience of the landscape in which these kids live.”
The second half morphs into a suspenseful account of the competitions, which turns out to possess a deeper purpose than the dances’ physical steps: among other goals, the ability to discipline and transform oneself, a means to extend beyond their neighborhoods’ bleak opportunities. Essentially, it's a study of New York’s great diversity, the contrast and similarities of different neighborhoods, as well as the challenge to rise above rather disadvantaged, complex surroundings. While Tribeca’s PS 150 participants are more verbally confident and intellectually opinionated, Washington Heights PS 115’s female participants, stemming from poor Spanish-speaking homes, complain of enduring the streets’ cat-calling drunks and drug dealers. All these participants are equally endearing, so who to root for? The audience can’t help but feel confused, wishing all could waltz their way into victory.
Although many have been quick to compare it to Spellbound, we think this documentary slightly more heartwarming, less mocking and tense. Whereas the former focused on the quirks of both participants and their somewhat troubled family dynamics (remember that robotic-kid pressured by his intense Indian “stage parent”?), the lighter Mad Hot Ballroom primarily keeps to participants' passion and student-teacher relationships. That’s not to say, however, the audience doesn’t get a glimpse of participants’ financial and domestic struggles (in one scene, an 11 year old contestant genuinely and candidly explains why her mother should no longer tolerate her own father’s disrespectful infidelity). Through insightful interviews and casual group talks, we're presented an optimistic perspective of their vulnerability and often complicated development.
At 104 minutes, Mad Hot Ballroom can seem rather lengthy and scattered, but given its abundance of engaging, sometimes hysterical and tender moments, there’s plenty to appreciate: rough-looking kids excitedly describing ballroom dancing as if it were rap or a video game; girls bluntly critiquing their midget-sized partners; two Muslim children, prohibited from dancing, who DJ the boom-box as their classmates rehearse; and the shattering minute a team loses, a genuinely emotional moment, made humorous as both participants and teacher have themselves a good cry.
It takes truly fascinating subjects to make a documentary – on of all things, children's ballroom dancing – compelling, but Mad Hot Ballroom effectively captures their spirit for a pretty dramatic, riveting film.