A review of “Mad Hot Ballroom” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG for mature themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

 

 

New York City fifth-graders turn up the heat in this precocious documentary that speaks the universal language of rhythm and soul.

The low-income kids of Brooklyn, Queens, and Washington Heights are no Fred Astaires or Ginger Rogers nor do they necessarily dream of tripping the light fantastic. But the devoted educators of their local public schools have something in mind for them – a mandatory 10-week ballroom dancing course and city-wide competition that offers valuable lessons in discipline, etiquette and self-esteem.

Considering that the majority of the schools are operating with students at the 95% poverty rate and that lessons in artistic expression (dance, music, art) are an impossible luxury it’s a touch-and-go prospect. Not to mention the fact that ballroom dancing is traditionally a sexy dialogue between mature men and women.

Tango, swing, slide, rumba and the merengue all get their time in the sun.  The teachers are focused and determined (“Eye to eye connection!”, “Where’s your tango face?”) while overseeing 11-year old charges with tremendously mixed skills and interest.

The most interesting facet of this poignant doc is its sweet cusp of adolescence; giddy crushes, dishing on the opposite sex, and coming-of-age a la a mating dance that manifests itself in the beauty of movement and a leap to meet the challenges of adulthood.

The finale is pure nail-biting drama as the winning teams (forty-eight schools whittled down to nine) compete in the intense Rainbow Team Matches to become the city’s newest ballroom dancing champions.

Bumbling left feet and bittersweet tears segue into smooth and sensual moves and a satisfying roundelay of cultural diversity. Production values are raw and first-time helmer Marilyn Agrelo intermittently loses her focus but the project teems with natural humor and grace. Ballroom is mad hot entertainment.