(Documentary Feature, 2005)

Eleven-year-old New York City public school kids journey into the world of ballroom dancing and reveal pieces of themselves and their world along the way. Told from their candid, sometimes hilarious perspectives, these kids are transformed, from reluctant participants to determined competitors.

This engaging film combines the warm charm of Spellbound with the kinetic energy of Strictly Ballroom. It will make you want to laugh, cry and do a little dancing yourself, maybe all at the same time.

Mad Hot Ballroom focuses on an annual citywide competition that encompasses the program’s five dances: fox-trot, merengue, rumba, tango and swing. The action, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, cuts back and forth between three public schools in different parts of the city. The film culminates in an emotional dance-off for the enormous trophy that goes to New York’s number one dance team.

The film’s fourth- and fifth-graders, still a few years from the mad hormones of adolescence, seem hardly likely to embrace the physical touch and constant eye contact ballroom dancing demands. But the wonder of Mad Hot Ballroom is that these kids embrace dance and even get to love it. `It’s like a sport that hasn’t been invented yet,’ one boy enthuses about ballroom’s so old it’s new charms.

These dancers get all but addicted to the chance to do something well and feel good about themselves in the process. And because they are so young, not old enough to dissemble and hide their feelings behind bland facial expressions, their disappointments and their joy are easy for us to read and to share in.

As the film progresses, we can literally see these young people start to feel better about themselves as their dancing skills improve. When one teacher says, between tears, `I see them turning into these ladies and gentlemen,’ you know what she’s crying about. Though the kids who don’t do well in the citywide contest often end up in tears themselves, the film makes you believe they are all winners. They just don’t see it yet.

Kenneth Turan, NPR