Mad Hot Ballroom
Introducing mandatory ballroom dancing as part of the curriculum in the public school system might sound like a brave initiative. It's even gutsier when you consider the students involved are fifth-graders, some of whom can barely bring themselves to touch a member of the opposite gender.
Implemented by the New York City School District in the 1990s, the 10-week course is taught in 60 public schools by talented and patient instructors from the American Ballroom Theater Company. The culminating event is a citywide competition where the schools vie for a huge trophy and bragging rights for the next year.
Focusing on the students and teachers from three different schools, Director Marilyn Agrelo expands on an article written by Amy Sewell for The Tribeca Trib. In the documentary, the two women highlight the cultural, economic and family circumstances of the young contestants from varying boroughs of the city.
Some of the kids are street-wise beyond their years, exposed to the harsher realities of life. Others live in poverty but their enthusiasm for movement isn't diminished by their lack of funds. Still another class comes from a community that is undergoing a sweeping cultural change as one ethnic group gives way for newcomers from another.
The charm of this film however, comes from the students themselves. Candid in their comments, they discuss girl/boy relationships, life on the streets and future plans. Their unscripted dialogue reveals the passions and hopes of these youngsters as they look forward to adulthood.
The fun starts when these pre-adolescents hit the hardwood. Encouraged by devoted instructors like Rodney Lopez, Victoria Malvagno and Alex Tchassov, the kids learn the intricacies of synchronized steps, hip movements and hand positions. They study the niceties of social interactions, and develop a sense of camaraderie with their teammates. The participants also learn about the reality of winning and losing. For some of them, it is a hard lesson to experience the heartbreak that comes from doing your best and still falling short. Yet for others, the event helps them focus on something productive in their lives. It overcomes language barriers and crosses cultural lines.
Given a chance to perform in front of hundreds of classmates and spectators in a downtown venue, nerves do get a little stretched during the actual dance-offs. But the spirit of the event remains enthusiastic and upbeat with the audience and other dancers offering their rowdy support to the kids on the stage.
While their routines may lack the polish of a professional troupe, these competitors perform with an eagerness that makes Mad Hot Ballroom a foot-tapping, hip-swaying experience for audiences young and old.