A Matter of Life and Dance

Young ballroom competitors Karina, left, and Wilson and Jatnna and Danilo practice the merengue in the documentary
Young ballroom competitors Karina, left, and Wilson and Jatnna and Danilo practice the merengue in the documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom." (By Claudia Raschke-robinson)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

THE ESSENCE of ballroom dance, it seems, lies not in the formal steps that the feet take or in the way the hips move to the music. It's not in the frozen smiles on the faces of the dancers or the way one partner must maintain eye contact with the other. It isn't even in the rigid "frame" a couple holds with their arms as their bodies glide in unison across the dance floor.

It's in the heart.

That's the not entirely unexpected yet surprisingly stirring message of "Mad Hot Ballroom," a documentary in the tradition of "Spellbound" that follows several teams of pre-adolescent student dancers from New York City schools as they train for the nerve-wracking competition that caps the American Ballroom Theater's "Dancing Classrooms" program of ballroom dance instruction. Despite all the emphasis on form -- and ballroom dance is nothing if not formal -- "Mad Hot Ballroom" is really about aspirations that go far beyond the correct way to execute a turn in a tango or a merengue.

"I see them turning into these ladies and gentlemen," says one teacher, just before breaking down in tears as she speaks about her young charges. And in interviews with the children themselves, much of what is spoken has less to do with mastering technique than it does with life and the challenges and promises it holds.

Like a "sport that hasn't been invented into a sport yet," as one child so charmingly puts it, competing in ballroom dance is, in addition to being fun and good exercise, a tool for learning such life skills as etiquette, discipline, interacting with the opposite sex and knowledge of other cultures. (Two young Muslim boys, explaining that their religion prohibits them from participating in actually dancing, are more than happy to play DJ during the classroom exercises.)

Needless to say, there's also the inherent drama that comes built into any contest, which gives the film so much more than merely inspirational uplift. Director-producer Marilyn Agrelo and producer-writer Amy Sewell make the most of -- without milking for cheap sentiment -- the fact that there will not just be winners here but losers. The fact that those winners and losers are kids, and that the over-the-moon joy of the ultimate champions will be tempered by the hot, bitter tears of the also-rans (also-rans that the audience has come to know and care about) only makes "Mad Hot Ballroom" that much more moving.

In the end, handling victory graciously, and swallowing defeat with dignity, could be said to be the most important lesson learned by the juvenile subjects of this sweet and wise little film.

MAD HOT BALLROOM (PG, 105 minutes) -- Contains some mild references to sex and violence. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company