The Light Fantastic
About 10 years ago, the New York City public school system invited a dance-education nonprofit to teach ballroom dancing to 11-year-olds in 60 of its schools. Just as school administrators hoped the classes would turn their pupils into ladies and gentlemen, Paramount Classics must be crossing its fingers that a documentary about the project, which struck gold with audiences and set off a bidding war at the Slamdance Film Festival last January, will turn into another Spellbound at the box office. Like the earlier film, Mad Hot Ballroom, a frisky charmer made by first-time feature filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell, means to tease out the usual array of ancillary social benefits from the sheer fun of mastering the merengue, tango and fox trot. One of the nice things about this movie, which turns an observant, sympathetic and mischievous camera on kids from three schools in very different parts of New York Washington Heights, populated primarily by poor Dominican kids; Bensonhurst, serving a half-Italian, half-Asian community; and the yuppie enclave of Tribeca in lower Manhattan is that Agrelo and Sewell dont make too big a deal of the class and ethnic differences among the children. Instead they focus on the interplay between teachers and students, from the shy, klutzy or sullen to the buoyant (undersized, motormouthed little philosopher surely awaits a glittering future, if not as a hoofer, then certainly as mayor of New York), pushy or naturally gifted, as they train for a citywide finals competition. For all I know, the handsome Dominican boy who had been headed for a life of crime may well be turned around by his dance-floor prowess and good manners. And even if upward mobility seems a lot to ask of swing or the rumba, as with Spellbound, the worthy text of Mad Hot Ballroom is undercut by the real source of its energy, the heat of competition and the pure joy of winning. The production notes giddily tout the movie as a resounding exclamation point for growing up in America. I dont know about that, but if youll pardon my raving populism, it sure was a blast to see the underdogs, who have many generations of swiveling hips to draw on, wipe the floor with those precocious little buggers from downtown. MAD HOT BALLROOM | Directed by MARILYN AGRELO | Written by AMY SEWELL | Produced by AGRELO and SEWELL | Released by Paramount Classics | At selected theaters
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