Where Kids Stand on Their Own Two Feet

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

To reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, New York City public schools have added another R: rumba. Also tango, merengue, fox trot and swing dancing. For the past decade, fifth-graders throughout the city's five boroughs have been required to learn ballroom dancing, locking hands and eyes with their peers and swaying to the sounds of big bands and bongos. But there is more to this program than the steps, as Marilyn Agrelo's insightful and endearing documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" makes clear.

Juxtapose ballroom dance's grown-up moves with ponytailed 10-year-olds and you're guaranteed a steep "awwww" factor. But Agrelo, who directed the film, and writer-producer Amy Sewell have taken a deeper look at these kids and their lives and where the dancing fits in. For many of the youngsters -- those who are disadvantaged, or come to school as recent immigrants -- the dancing represents a rare chance to excel.

The film follows students from three schools as they vie for a trophy at the culminating citywide competition, a grueling process in which thousands of hopefuls are judged on their poise, their posture, their timing and most important, their attitude (yes, that preteen sass that may drive parents crazy is prized on the dance floor). It's a vibrant multicultural mix -- there's a school from Tribeca, where the kids seem startlingly worldly; one from Bensonhurst, a blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood with a growing Asian population, and one from Washington Heights, whose student body is overwhelmingly Dominican, 97 percent of them living in poverty.

We see how their teachers lust for that winning trophy as desperately as the kids do. We watch as the instructors zero in on each stumble and success with laser focus, how they endeavor to get squirmy kids to look in each other's eyes "like it's the last time in your life," as one urges.

Clearly, there's a lot more to ballroom dancing than simply getting the footwork right (and these young, nimble minds seem to master that part with maddening ease). Keeping your shirt tucked in is of vital importance, yet so devilishly hard to do. So is smiling at your partner "even if you hate him," as one teacher commands. And there is the tricky matter of dealing with the gender bias embedded in the art form, which means spirited, outspoken girls have to submit to being "led" by their awkward, sometimes intimidated male counterparts.

It is wonderful fun to watch these kids dance, to witness their earnest efforts to perfect patterns, musicality and hip action. But what is loveliest is listening to the kids talk. They are at a touchingly sweet stage, still plump-cheeked and mischievous, bravely trying to make sense of a complicated world and their place in it.

In remarkably intimate interviews, the students open up about their lives and their dreams, some of them as grandiose as making it in the music industry, others as simple as finding a husband who's not into drugs. Their guileless chatter will take you back to the slumber parties of your youth. But there is also a directness about these children that feels very 21st-century urban, as careers, parents, puberty, the opposite sex and the upcoming competition are discussed with equal seriousness.

Can ballroom dancing right all the wrongs in their lives, especially in those of the most desperate? In one of the film's most poignant moments, a teacher of the Dominican students considers the irony of her largely impoverished kids becoming experts in this elegant art form. "You bring in the arts, you bring in all these programs, and a few years down the line you'll see these kids on the street," worries Yomaira Reynoso.

Yet the principal of Reynoso's school notes that several students have turned away from troublemaking in the course of the program, maturing and becoming more disciplined before her eyes. The film doesn't sermonize about the virtues of dancing in a school setting; the wholesome impact is implicit. Some of the program's most striking lessons, in fact, come from the newfound grace and confidence of the students themselves.

Mad Hot Ballroom (105 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG for some mild references to sex and violence.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company