In the early-90s, a dance program from the American Ballroom Institute was introduced by NYC public school system in a few of its centers. Success came sooner than expected, and now up to 60 schools take part in hoping to win the ultimate Rainbow Team Matches Competition which features diminutive dancers performing the fox trot, the tango, merengue, rumba and swing. First-time filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo and her partner Amy Sewell, who serves as a producer while also being the one who wrote the original story for the local paper on which this work is based on, follow these fascinating kids from three different schools -- P. S. 150 of Tribeca in Lower Manhattan; P.S. 112 of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; and P.S. 115 of North Manhattans Washington Heights -- as they prepare for the competition in their enthralling, energetic, and heart-warming documentary named Mad Hot Ballroom.
There are various social, class, and ethnic differences between the people who reside in those areas-- poverty rate runs about 97% in the largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood; working-class Bensonhurst is mostly Italian and Asian; while the hip and trendy populate the multi-cultural Tribeca. But Instead of deliberately focusing on those differences that exist among these kids, Agrelo brilliantly captures their mutual fascination and love for the art of dance. Its easy for us to decipher from the various conversations that those Dominican kids are much more aware of drugs and crime than their counterparts, so thankfully she doesnt parade them and their parents in front of us claiming how miserable life is. This is about documenting an hour or two these kids spend away from everything else doing something that they otherwise wouldnt have the opportunity to do. The dance program is exactly the same in every school and is available to 5th graders, who are mostly between the ages of 10 and 12.
Documentaries have become increasingly "polished" just in the last few years, and theyre now at a point where its becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction, and thats not what they are meant to be. Filmmakers now also believe that they can all cut like JLG, or Michael Moore for that matter. So its refreshing to see a work like Mad Hot Ballroom where theres some awkwardness, not just in the filmmaking process but also in the conversation taking place on screen. "Awkward" is also perhaps the right word to describe where the kids are age-wise. So its quite amusing to hear them talk about the other sex (they obviously have to hold hands and look into each others eyes for a few numbers which are a delight to watch) or how theyre coping as the competition grow near. Agrelo has also done well featuring the right amount of showmanship and professionalism that goes into preparation for the ultimate competition. But her best move is simply leaving the camera on these performers for the last 20 minutes or so at which point the competition and everything prior to it almost seem irrelevant -- and thats because all you can think while watching those kids is that theyre all Mad Hot Beautiful.