Bright Lights Film Journal

Ready to Rumba? Dance Fever Doc Mad Hot Ballroom Busts a Groove

“You start having to wash two times a day and grow hair in weird places.”

“I like moving my hips, a lot!” That’s one preteen girl enthusing about the pleasures of dancing in Marilyn Agrelo’s warm and funny Mad Hot Ballroom, a colorful documentary that follows a New York City public school program to develop physical and mental confidence in ordinary kids from the big city’s poorer corners by putting them in dancing shoes.

Everyone’s been at that awkward stage where the eleven-year-old girl towers over her partner, where the chunky boy forces his feet through the steps with hilariously grim determination, or the wiry beanpole struggles to harness the energy he uses for shooting hoops into mastering the tango. (Free tip: you’ll get the moves right if you spell it rhythmically while you glide: “t-a-n-g-o”)

On creaky wooden floors of school gymnasiums from Brooklyn to Queens, they learn the power of eye-to-eye contact and the potency of a smile, where to put their hands and how to control their body language (assigned an unfamiliar partner, one exasperated kid gripes that it’s like dancing with an alien). It’s all preparation for the intimacies that loom across the hormonal horizon, of course. One boy accurately foresees the coming misery when “you start having to wash two times a day and grow hair in weird places.”

Relaxed and unpretentious, the film follows the various stages of a citywide dance competition, with behind-the-scenes prepping by passionate teachers, conscious role models of grown-up poise and focus in case no one at home regards their students as “ladies” and “gentlemen.” Naturally, the kids themselves prove plenty smart enough to see that this dancing business makes a decent dry run for dealing with modern life’s challenges. In fact, some are little philosophers reflecting on serious matters like drugs and prostitution, parental pressures, and cheating spouses.

Watching them gradually develop grace, the sweet-natured movie never seems ungenerous, despite some disconnect at seeing youngsters in Sunday school finery gliding across the parquet to Peggy Lee’s decidedly adult “Fever.” Still, when green-eyed Wilson, recently arrived from the Dominican Republic and speaking no English, unleashes a killer smile as he guides his partner through a scorching rumba, it’s clear that the lessons are worth learning.

With the fast pace, observant humor, and suspense of the 2002 sleeper hit Spellbound, this film lets the stress of competition take a back seat to celebrating the summertime energy of its kids. Whether they’re mugging for the camera, running through sprinklers, skipping rope, or negotiating the rhythms of the merengue, these classmates support each other and know that winning or losing isn’t crucial.

Whatever this rough-and-ready documentary lacks in Hollywood gloss, it makes up in heart and exhilaration, its camera planting us right in the whirling midst of the dancers. Mad Hot Ballroom will be hard to beat for the season’s most joyous experience in a movie theater, at least the kind that demands watching the screen.