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Tango tweens

Inner-city kids rumba their way into Mad Hot - Ballroom.
  • Inner-city kids rumba their way into Mad Hot Ballroom.

*Mad Hot Ballroom (NR)
Kimball's Twin Peak

The sight of fifth-graders practicing ballroom dancing isn't as cutesy as you might think, at least as seen by first-time documentary filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell. Mad Hot Ballroom is the duo's energetic and moving chronicle of an innovative school program, life in New York City and the magical age of 11.

The movie swirls, cuts and twirls in time to its marvelous soundtrack the music borrowed from CDs used by American Ballroom Theater classroom instructors as they teach pre-adolescents to rumba, tango, swing, foxtrot and merengue.

The documentarians focus on three schools: PS 112, in Brooklyn's middle-class Bensonhurst neighborhood; PS 150, in downtown Manhattan's Tribeca district; and PS 115, in an impoverished, largely Dominican area of Washington Heights in uptown Manhattan.

At each school, fifth-graders are engaged in the ABT program. They learn, reluctantly at first, to face a partner of the opposite sex, maintain eye contact and smile. The girls are intrigued and the boys are grossed out; the facial expressions of these budding dancers are absolutely priceless.

In short order it becomes clear that the program is about far more than dancing; it's about etiquette, comportment, discipline, growing up and, above all, competition. Six pairs of dancers from each class will be chosen to represent their schools in the semi-finals. The chances of those groups moving on to the citywide grand finals are slim.

One scene featuring a lovely young teacher named Allison surprises with its emotional intensity. As she explains why she believes the program is good for her kids and why she worries about the competitive aspect, her voice breaks and she can no longer maintain her composure. She chokes on her words: "I feel like I'm watching them turn into ladies and gentlemen."

Another teacher, the fiery Yomairi of PS 115, who speaks rapid-fire Spanglish as she coaches her brood, sees the dance competition as a chance to save the kids from the streets and help them make something of their lives.

But Ballroom's steady focus is on the kids. At one school, cheerful Taha and somber Mohammed sit at the back of the room manning the boom box, unable to dance for religious reasons. At PS 115, Kelvin, the tallest boy in the class, matures into a class leader, and Wilson, a quiet boy who speaks very little English, comes to life dancing a hot rumba.

At PS 150, Emma, the 10-year-old class mother, dispenses wisdom before the semi-finals: "If you're chosen, don't brag or boast, because that'll make the ones not chosen feel worthless." Tara, who dances in front of her mirror at home, dreams of becoming an actor and singer who will dance in her live stage act.

And at PS 112, Michael and his buddies, in after-school foosball games, muse over the mysteries of girls while the girls admit to each other their crushes and discuss with great wisdom the problems of being female.

Anchoring the film are the dancers and the dances. Some painfully earnest and awkward, others astonishingly accomplished and beautiful, they're a little like life itself, set for a few magical months in a mad hot ballroom.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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