Mad Hot Ballroom

Mad Hot Ballroom

****

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Triumph over adversity is a staple of the documentary. The skill of director, editor and cinematographer, while essential in bringing a story to the screen, is less important than the tangible human connection between viewer and subject.

Mad Hot Ballroom is no exception to the rule. It was made by Marylin Agrelo in much the same vein as Jeffrey Blitz's terrific 2002 film Spellbound, an in depth examination of the discipline required to become exceptional in one particular field, in this case competitive ballroom dancing.

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We are introduced to the teachers and pupils of Washington Heights, a school of considerable ethnic balance - a sizable proportion of the film is subtitled in Spanish, although the meaning is usually clear and suitable for the average eight-year-old to understand. Indeed, Mad Hot Ballroom is an ideal family film, with its strong role models and infectious good cheer, with young people maturing and learning more about themselves through physical expression and enriching their lives. At one point, the principal insists that Kelvin say sorry to a girl he has hurt, almost choosing to throw it all away rather than admit his fault. But he does and gradually, visibly, we see his dancing skills emerge, rousing the audience's empathy and excitement.

The film goes a long way on charm alone, mixing the offbeat humour of the children - think Michael Barrymore's Kids Say The Funniest Things, given a racial stir - and those willing them to succeed, propelled by the fierce Latino energy of their principal. Her focus is on changing the idea of dance as recreation to a "dialogue between a lady and a gentleman," encouraging a strongly competitive spirit. This is reinforced by the upset manner of the losers and the support of their teacher - I loved her - weeping openly on camera, insisting what "wonderful little people" they are.

During the various dances, I was reminded of Billy Connolly exclaiming that "all dance is foreplay," although the children remain innocent of sexual overtones. Indeed, their bodies radiate joy, especially the proficient winners, who become so good that the film leaves behind the easy charm and natural comedy to become something quite different. We find ourselves changing posture, leaning forward, willing these talented youngsters to do better for themselves.

In between practice sessions, Agrelo invites us to share the children's thoughts, by interviewing them in groups on camera and letting them talk through issues that concern them. It's delightful stuff, picking out the molten nuggets of thought, from boys, to their parents, caring for one another, to simpler things like friendship. The documentary crew is their ticket to the world and Agrelo exploits this to the full.

What a lovely film.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2005
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Mad Hot Ballroom packshot
Competitive ballroom dancing for the ethnically diverse pupils of Washington Heights.
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Read more Mad Hot Ballroom reviews:

The Exile ****
Sarah Artt ***1/2

Festivals:

EIFF 2005

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If you like this, try:

Spellbound