It’s kids, it’s ballroom. It works.
Ten years ago director Marilyn Agrelo could not have imagined that her very first film would be about kids, or on dancing for that matter. “Oh, it wouldn’t have been edgy enough for my tastes,” she admits with a laugh.
Fortunately, like a ballroom dancer, Agrelo surrendered herself to some of the creative rhythms working around her, proving there’s a certain reward in taking up a dance that has nothing to do with the “dance” you’re dancing. The result is Mad Hot Ballroom (***1/2), one of the most dazzling, heartfelt—and downright fun—documentaries of the season.
In it, Agrelo chronicles three very different New York City schools and its students, who are competing for top honors in a citywide competition. In other words, if Spellbound had a stepsister that knew how to tango, she’d be called Mad Hot Ballroom.
“As I became more and more involved in this story and the kids’ journey, and my emotional connection to them, I was really actually surprised at how deep of an emotional connection I actually formed—and how important that was,” Agrelo says. “This isn’t really a film about dance. I think the dance process and the competition was a wonderful vehicle to get us from A to Z, but to me, this film is an intimate look into these kids; into the mind of what it is to be 11 years old. It’s a tricky age. You’re not a little kid any more but you’re not a teenager yet. You’re starting to figure things out. I think this film was a look into their lives and their reality as urban kids and deeper than that, it’s a story of hope and having dreams.”
And Mad Hot Ballroom is all about that. Proof is in the protagonists; the troika of schools that Agrelo and her collaborator, Amy Sewell, whittled down from the 60 New York City schools that participated in the citywide ballroom competition. Here, blossoming 11-year-olds dive into a new, fascinating world that not only allows them to develop some stellar dance skills, but also affords them the ability to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
The concept of Ballroom originally came from an article Sewell wrote on a group of Tribecca students who were feverish over ballroom dance. Intrigued enough by her friend’s report, Agrelo decided to join forces with Sewell, a New York City-based writer, and the two began a curious journey that would result in the film which would highlight three competing teams: Manhattan’s Washington Heights and Tribecca, and Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst. Shooting in neighborhoods, classrooms and several fifth-graders’ homes, Agrelo illuminates all the contradictions of what it’s like to be 11 years old.
Asked if there was one school that stood out in the mix, Agrelo points to the students of Washington Heights, “because it’s a harsh environment there and these beautiful children—they were like beautiful flowers blossoming in a harsh landscape. What moved me to tears to think of them triumphing because I think that they have very little to look at to inspire them. When you walk around that neighborhood, what you see—and what symbolizes success—is possibly the drug dealers; the ones who are making money and driving big cars. I was always conscious of what was going through their minds … and when it came time for the competition and for them having a little victory, that was very very profound for me. I wanted them to remember what this success felt like. And was hoping that it would carry them forever.”
Since this film about dance isn’t really a film about “dance” per se, Agrelo wasn’t immune to some of lessons she had to learn along the way.
“The kids taught me a lot about their world and their age and at a very interesting moment when they are just tasting their independence and their freedom and their opinions—and to voice them,” she says, “but they are not jaded yet, or rebellious yet. They were every unedited and they revealed so freely their thoughts. I didn’t expect them to have the ability to do that.”