July 09, 2005




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Dancing Their Way To Academic Success                         
City Kids Compete With Their Grandparents’ Dances
By Cole Smithey

ColeSmithey.com"ColeSmithey.com" is a testament to the elementary public school system of New York's five boroughs, to its kids and to the dance teachers of the American Ballroom Institute.

Teams of fourth and fifth grade girls and boys from Brooklyn, Tribeca and Washington Heights train to compete in a citywide dance contest as director Marilyn Agrelo reveals the personalities of the young students whose lives are enriched by their contact with each other and their teachers through ballroom dance.

The narrative (written by Amy Sewell) assembles toward its built-in trophy award climax with the teams performing five dances, the Fox Trot, Swing, Rumba, Tango and Meringue. Charming, poignant and festive "Mad Hot Ballroom" is an inspirational documentary that shows the power of dance to invigorate self-esteem and ambition in young hearts.


Part and parcel to the mesmerizing quality of the movie is the level of urban sophistication the children verbally articulate to one another regarding their hopes and opinions regarding their families and community. Faced with adverse societal pressures of poverty, drug abuse and broken homes the children naturally gravitate to the ritual of dance for the wealth of metaphorical life experience it offers.

Regardless of how clumsy the children seem when they first begin learning the same dances that their grandparents danced, there is a remarkable improvement in their physicality and attitudes that occurs as they hone their dance skills.


The teachers are notable for their heartfelt passion for instilling good manners and solid dance techniques in the children. These are the kind of teachers every parent would want their child to learn any subject from. The blossoming sense of sincere decency and respect that the children learn to express to one another through dance is instantly recognizable for its traditional nature that neutralizes racial and intimate anxiety.

The competitive nature of the of the dance finals presents a special challenge for the instructors to praise the efforts of the children while keeping the competition moving along toward the finalists groups.


Losing teams are praised for their diligent work with bronze and silver categories that are proudly announced as the children are given goodie bags that scarcely comfort them from their loss. In this way, the children learn to cope with life lessons of competitive rejection while keeping their self-esteem for the work that they’ve done.


A significant component to the film’s meta-subtext is the harmony that exists between the children who come from a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. The kids are already socialized to a high degree of social tolerance that’s reinforced in the practice of dances that serve to display an idealized vision of multiethnic collaboration and communication.

The filmmakers wisely abstain from the crutch of voice-over narration and allow their subjects’ spontaneous reactions and behaviors to tell a multitude of stories that are glimpsed via the subtleties intrinsic in the physical communication of the circumstances.


Cinematographer Claudia Raschke compensates for the film’s schoolroom authentic fluorescent lighting by shooting the majority of movie from a low point-of-view that frames the children from their eye level or lower. In this way, the young dancers are presented as complete individuals engaging in a social activity with a rich tradition steeped in the music of jazz standards. When the movie climaxes with its outdoors-final competition, the joyous expressions on the proud parent’s faces compete with the impressive dancing by their handsome children.

The sustained inspiring effect of "Mad Hot Ballroom" stays with the audience long after the movie is over. Perhaps if our global world leaders had such occasion to compete against one another in an arena of Ballroom dance, they would have more empathy for other cultures when they were off of the dance floor. Regardless, the connotations stirred by this marvelous "little" movie are enormous.

Rated PG. 110 mins. 

4 Stars

Cozy Cole



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