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06.15.2006

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buy the DVD

flick pick | Mad Hot Ballroom 2005
Directed by: Marilyn Agrelo
Written by: Amy Sewell
Starring: Tara Devon Gallagher, Madeline Hackney, Charlotte Jorgensen, Rodney Lopez, Victoria Malvagno, Stacee Mandeville, Daniel Ponickly
Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: documentary
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something:  feel-good, true?!?
The critic says: ½/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5 

Plot synopsis A popular and unusual New York City phys ed program gives 5th-graders across the city's public school system the chance to learn the fundamentals of ballroom dance. The best of the bunch are asked to join their school team and paired off as partners, as they prepare to compete in a major citywide competition. Mad Hot Ballroom follows teams from three different schools set in very different New York neighborhoods: P.S. 150 in Tribeca, where the kids are largely well-off and worldly, P.S. 115 in Washington Heights, which has a large Dominican immigrant population and where 97% of students live below the poverty level, and P.S. 112 in Bensonhurst, a working/middle class neighborhood where Asian and Italian communities intertwine. Dedicated teachers prod skeptical students to learn how to move their feet, hold their bodies, lead and follow, all in response to the rhythm of the music; awkward pre-adolescents gradually achieve grace, poise, self-confidence and a real sense of respect for their partners. It's a rewarding program that gives the kids so much more than basic dance floor skills. Still, though every effort is made to keep the competition as friendly and positive as possible, the quest for the trophy is fierce, as some teams make the cut to proceed to the next level and others watch their dreams go bye-bye.

Review There's something about kids and competition that just gets me in the gut. It's probably a testament to how much the idea of the American dream is ingrained into our psyches, but watching youngsters work really, really hard to achieve some goal -- you have to be a pretty hardened soul not to root for the kidlets, to find yourself not even a smidge affected by their determination and optimistic faith that hard work will yield success. Throw in the inherent amusement factor of watching kids in that weird stage of growth between childhood and young adulthood learn how to do something as old-fashioned-formal and grown-up as ballroom dance, and it's no wonder that Mad Hot Ballroom is just the best kind of feel-good. The kids are funny and weird, and say the most gut-wrenchingly sad things in the most off-hand way (one sweet-faced fifth-grader tosses off a dead-earnest comment about how, when she gets a little older, she just wants a boyfriend who's not a drug dealer). They're so damned adorable -- without being all Hollywood-styled faux-cutesy -- that after we finished watching this flick, my normally stoic boy commented, "Aw, I want a cute ten-year-old." But for better or worse, Mad Hot Ballroom chooses not to focus on the individual characters (indeed, I had a hard time remembering who was who at times, which was a little frustrating) and strives to capture the overall feel of the different schools and communities instead. And certainly, that's one of the really fascinating things about this documentary, how it shows such a diversity of socio-economic cultures all existing within the confines of the city of New York. Still, in the end, the thing that really wins you over about Mad Hot Ballroom is the sight of those kids dancing. The movie doesn't ignore the problems some of them might soon face, but while they're on the dance floor, it's so obvious: these kids have found something that makes them feel good, and challenges them to be better. It's not world peace and better lives for all mankind, but it's a good start.
 
—reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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