Mad Hot Ballroom is no great shakes as a documentary, but there are great shakes in the sight of 10- and 11-year-olds learning ballroom dancing in the New York City public school system.
The filmmakers haphazardly intercut several groups practicing in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan grade schools. At first they're difficult to sort out. But then you begin to focus on the most appealing or aggressive teachers. A sweet gal from Tribeca sniffles with pride when her unruly charges become ladies and gentlemen. A hard-driving pedagogue from Washington Heights urges her Dominican pupils to modulate their swinging hips and hand jive to take home the top prize in the annual citywide competition.
Tough love and tenderness work equally well, depending on the school; mass characters emerge, and a few individual ones, too. Pert, precocious Tara Devon Gallagher of Tribeca (the star of the indie feature Swimmers) dreams of being a singer who can dance and act. So do the young ladies from Washington Heights, who also savor their chance to still be girls before their parents grow superprotective.
Their dance instructors offer essays in divergent kinds of poise. A ramrod commander named Alex urges his boys in Tribeca to lock eyes with their partners and make sure they feel happy for the full duration of a dance. (His focused formality can make girls uncomfortable.) Rodney, in Washington Heights, keeps his charges loose by getting down with them in a line dance after each session.
Structurally, the movie is a mess. Only one team proceeds to the finals. The filmmakers then hasten to sketch in the competition, the reigning champs from Forest Hills.
But the film pays off as you see boys and girls learn the joys of movement and etiquette before everything becomes sexualized in high school. Like the judges in the finals, including the great Broadway dancer Ann Reinking, you grin with pleasure at their moves. But it's just as big a delight to see them learn to respect individuals of their own and the opposite gender.
What's moving about Mad Hot Ballroom is watching kids develop esprit de corps and a rough-edged chivalry.
SUN SCORE ** 1/2 stars (2 1/2 stars)
Mad Hot Ballroom
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
Released by Paramount Classics
Time 105 minutes