Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Reading and writing don’t mean a thing if New York City kids don’t also learn to swing. Thus, the logic of public education dictates as thousands of eleven year olds in public schools throughout New York City participate in a mandatory ten-week course to learn classical manners, respectability, and ballroom dance that culminates in a citywide competition filled with famous judges and school spirit. As Agrelo’s film follows the kids both in and out of school in a series of candid scenes, funny commentary, struggles and heartbreaking conflict, the viewer finds themselves both enchanted and slightly confused by the hyper intercutting as we try to keep the schools, instructors and students separate. Additional clarity in the editing would assist in keeping us on our toes in regards to the who’s who but Agrelo is right in opting for a fresh and decidedly untraditional documentary approach. We find ourselves inspired watching the transformation of the awkward kids into dreaming, impressive dancers and like Spellbound, the economic and sociological side also comes into play as we catch ourselves rooting for certain kids over others and become aware that as we root for the poorer kids with endless heart, the students will have so fewer opportunities than the others down the road as one teacher explains that several will become unwed mothers and dropouts. There is a larger issue going on beneath the surface of Mad Hot Ballroom but the director wants first and foremost to entertain and that she does although it’s hard watching kids compete against one another knowing there will be tears in the end. I found myself growing attached to certain stories and longing for a catch-up with the kids down the road a la Michael Apted in his famous Up Documentaries.