Ten is a magical age, when kids are old enough to make articulate statements about their experiences but young enough to express their feelings without shame. In a couple of years, excitement will go the way of the bag lunch and become uncool, and acceptable poses will shrink to a few: boredom, anger, bravado. But at 10, inside a beautiful window of awakening, kids are still free to be kids. And they are adorable.
Director Marilyn Agrelo brings us dozens of 10-year-olds in her documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, a wildly enjoyable look at the fifth-grade ballroom-dance competition held annually in New York City. By focusing on three schools -- PS 150 in trendy Tribeca, PS 112 in Bensonhurst and PS 115 in Washington Heights -- and their quests for the top prize, Agrelo paints a warm-hearted, hilarious picture of the city's riches: its ethnic diversity, its fervent support of the arts and, beautifully, its investment in children. New York City has always been the destination of choice for people with passion and outsized personality, but a good place to raise kids? If this movie is any indication, it just might be.
Ballroom shares quite a bit with 2003's Spellbound, the fine documentary that followed 10 middle school students in their attempts to win the National Spelling Bee. There is the drama of the quest, the struggle of preparation and the long list of lessons learned, especially about defeat. But Ballroom differs in important ways. For one thing, dancing is a more natural activity than spelling. And in dance, some of the kids who hail from poor immigrant families just might have an edge. At PS 115, which has a 97 percent poverty rate, the kids are Dominican, as is their firecracker of a teacher. In Dominican culture, dance enjoys a respected position, as opposed to being something that boys should be ashamed of doing. One look at those swiveling pelvises, and you get the sense that these kids are on home turf.
Dance, it is obvious, is good for kids. But is competition? During preparation, we see many of the students come into flower, changing in stature and becoming, in the words of one teacher, "little ladies and gentlemen." Competition inspires hard work and excellence, and the students rise to it. But what happens when the judging starts? Agrelo shows us the crush of disappointment, the initial shock when the children freeze, stunned, as they learn of their loss. Then they cry, and their teacher joins them, though she also tells them to rise above it. Later, back in the classroom, the children try to come to terms with their defeat.
"I'm indignant," one girl says. "I felt when I went away that I still could have done a little better," says a boy. And another: "If we did so good, why didn't we go to the semifinals or finals?" And that, of course, is the rub. Their teacher tries to convince them that winning isn't important, but how can that be true when the winners are so rewarded?
Mad Hot Ballroom's most memorable character is Yomaira Reynoso, the teacher in Washington Heights. From the film's opening moments, she makes it clear that she wants the grand prize, the large trophy that goes to the single triumphant school. (Indeed, the thing is gargantuan.) Whereas Allison Sheniak of Tribeca wonders whether she should be subjecting her students to a competition, Reynoso never questions it. Herself a graceful dancer, she is brimming with obvious passion for her students, practically dancing up the wall when they perform. She can also be harsh. At one point she scolds a boy for laughing, telling him in Spanish that everything he's doing is ugly. Can that be good for him?
Where Ballroom could be stronger is in its focus on individual students. Agrelo introduces us to several children at each school, but there's not enough time to get to know them. And there are so many kids in the film (the producers had to garner 700 release forms from parents) that we tend to lose track. Instead of individual students, Agrelo chooses both the teachers and the schools as protagonists, which is sensible, since the competition is based on team performance. But intimacy with unique kids is lacking.
Finally, the film never questions some of the antiquated conventions of ballroom dancing -- its inherent sexism, for instance, in which the male always leads. Although the girls complain that it's hard to follow your partner when he doesn't know the dance, and the boys complain that the girls "always think they're the boss of everything," nobody ever mentions switching roles or having same-sex pairs. The dance teachers do it, when they meet with each other, but their egalitarianism doesn't carry over into the classroom, which seems a real shame.
Still, Mad Hot Ballroom is lots of fun, with great music and a triumphant, cathartic climax. Good luck trying to sit still in your seat.
This review originally appeared in the Houston Press.