New York is a town that generally frowns upon the concept of prolonged eye contact. City kids learn early that locking eyes with someone is tantamount to a challenge. The deep stare is a bold move liable to provoke at the very least, annoyance (“Whadda you lookin’ at?”) or, more frighteningly, threats (“You lookin’ at me?”).
In light of this cultural characteristic, it seems improbable that since 1994, the American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classrooms program has insisted that thousands of eleven-year-old New York City public school kids not only lock eyes with each other, but swing their hips, hold hands, bow, curtsy and flash big, toothy grins — all in the name of the seemingly anachronistic art of ballroom dance.
Mad Hot Ballroom documents this program’s surprising success and popularity, wisely capitalizing on the beguiling charm of its stars — the students themselves.
Watching a healthy amount of time spent at dance practice, we initially see our young protagonists struggle with rhythm, historical background and some awkward physical positioning that includes all that afore-mentioned eye contact. As this footage is supplemented with interviews, candid after-school snippets and a few background details supplied by instructors and school faculty, we see that the strange artificialities of ballroom dance unlock a real wealth of benefits, ranging from pride and poise to the arts of cooperation and compromise.
Claudia Raschke-Robinson’s unobtrusive camera work captures all the qualities we love most about pre-teen kids. From towering elation to crestfallen dejection, we watch these kids unabashedly feel their way along the emotional spectrum. We listen to the endearing exuberance and terrifying honesty that flows through their conversations, and realize, with a little sadness, that the years of adolescent indifference and detachment loom just down the road.
Though it’s clear the program is conducted citywide, Director Marilyn Agrelo and Writer Amy Sewell divide screen time between three schools: P.S. 112 in Bensonhurst, TriBeCa’s PS150, and Washington Heights’ PS115. While the film’s most charismatic kids are based in TriBeCa and Bensonhurst, the comparatively poor Washington Heights team ultimately carries the lion’s share of the film’s drama, thanks to a Cinderella-story narrative arc and the force of will embodied in Yomaira Reynoso, the team’s doggedly determined teacher/advisor.
Mad Hot Ballroom shimmies between schools to capture the wit and confidence evident in TriBeCa’s kids, the good-natured appeal at Bensonhurst, and the Washington Heights team’s competitive focus.
If there’s criticism to file, it’s born of these shifts, which promenade our attention from one child to the next, foxtrotting over any sticky issues that lay in the subtext. This technique gives the film an entertaining levity, but robs it of any potential deeper meaning or true commentary. This is a minor objection, because ultimately, Mad Hot Ballroom turns out a delightful crowd-pleaser that merengues, foxtrots, swings, rumbas and tangos across the screen, daring its seat-bound audience not to twitch along with in time.