"It's like a sport that hasn't been invented yet...as a sport," one of the kids in Mad Hot Ballroom says. Obviously, he hasn't seen Strictly Ballroom or Shall We Dance or "Dancing With the Stars," all of which have featured cutthroat competition, the sequins flashing like machine-gun fire. Then again, when would he have found the time to see these delirious dance-offs? He's only 10 and has spent a lot of his off-hours learning the rumba, the tango, the merengue, the fox-trot and swing dancing. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, a Cuban immigrant who lives in Brooklyn, this light-on-its-feet documentary may be the best argument that school boards across the country have never come up with for increasing the funding of extracurricular activities. For in learning how to hold their heads up straight, look their partners in the eye and shake what their mommas gave them, these New York City youngsters are also learning how to glide across life's dance floor with grace, poise and style.
Of course, they're also learning how to compete. The ballroom-dancing program, which 68 schools throughout the five boroughs now participate in, culminates with a city-wide competition that recalls the nail-biting finish of Spellbound. The difference is that the kids in Spellbound were largely in it for themselves and their parents, whereas the kids in Mad Hot Ballroom seem to be in it for each other and their schools. Agrelo focuses on three teams ' one from Bensonhurst, where the kids are mostly middle-class Italians and Asians, one from TriBeCa, where the kids are mostly upper-middle-class Caucasians, and one from Washington Heights, where the kids are almost exclusively members of families from the Dominican Republic who are now living at or below the poverty line. However risky, it's tempting to play amateur sociologist: The Bensonhurst kids are doing it for fun, the TriBeCa kids are doing it for personal fulfillment, and the Washington Heights kids are dancing for their lives.
We spend a lot of time with the Washington Heights crew, and they can't help but break our hearts. "The children come to school with issues," their principal says, the dance floor having been embraced as one way of keeping them off the streets. But they're so young, so innocent; heck, they even tuck their shirts in when asked to. Agrelo interviews kids from all the schools, alone or in groups, and let me tell you, Art Linklater was right: Kids say the darnedest things. But the kids from Washington Heights say things that suggest a life fraught with peril. "A guy that doesn't sell drugs," one girl replies when asked what she'll be looking for in a husband someday. And although these boys and girls don't always see eye to eye (they're only in fifth grade, remember), they blossom before our eyes into proper ladies and fine, upstanding gentlemen, not to mention damn good dancers. One only hopes that, as they head into the higher grades, life will continue to offer them chances to excel.
A little over halfway through, Mad Hot Ballroom, which has been gliding along, its quick-quick-slow rhythms following Agrelo's lead, kicks it up a notch when the competition begins. Suddenly, the movie's not about dancing anymore but about winning. And you have to remind yourself that any kid who made it through the program is a winner, with a leg up on his or her classmates come prom. The finals are held in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, just a smoke cloud away from the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center used to be, and the meaning's there to be grasped if so desired: New York's children are dancing again. Admittedly, it's a little strange to see 10-year-olds swaying their hips to Peggy Lee's "Fever" ' hot ballroom, indeed. But would you rather have them lined up at the latest Star Wars? When it comes to the dance of romance and the romance of dance, I'll take Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers over Anakin Skywalker and PadmÃ Amidala any ol' day.