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Pupils from three New York public elementary schools, PS 115, PS 150 and PS 112 - including the solidly Hispanic (largely poor Dominican) contingent from PS 115 - learn ballroom dancing, like the merengue, the foxtrot, the rumba and the tango, as part of their curriculum, and compete in a city wide ballroom dancing competition. For some, it's a life altering experience.

Review by Louise Keller:
Surprising, delightful and inspiring, Mad Hot Ballroom is an entertaining documentary about 11 year old kids finding a focus and pursuing their passion. If you enjoyed Jeffrey Blitz' charming 2004 documentary Spellbound about kids following their dreams by competing in spelling bees, you will warm to this sweet and revealing film about ordinary New York kids, who learn ballroom dancing as part of their curriculum. Boasting a string of audience awards at film festivals around the world (including 2005 Sydney Film Festival Urban Cinefile Audience Award), this uplifting film delivers a dance card of passion and zest for life.

The ordinary becomes extraordinary, as we meet a mix of kids from different cultures at different schools, who have embraced the non-profit organization that offers lessons for the rumba, tango, fox trot, merengue and swing. The dance program is offered in over 60 public schools in New York City, opening the fresh eyes of the youngsters to a new world of opportunity. Each year through its competitive element, each school is invited to submit teams to participate, for the honour and glory of winning top prize.

Filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo takes us into the schools, where we meet the diverse range of students. The teacher counts in the beat: 5-6-7-8 and we are suddenly transported by the rhythmic music and the contagious smiles on the young faces. Some are confident and extroverts, others are bashful and self-conscious. The teachers clearly love what they do and go to great lengths to instill a sense of self-esteem to their young pupils. The youngsters are addressed as Ladies and Gentlemen, and the lessons learned go far beyond grace and fancy footwork. Kids who could easily tread the road of delinquency find a positive focus, and the confidence they gain becomes an invaluable accessory to take with them through life.

Another valuable lesson to be learned is that of winning and losing. As the kids progress through the quarterfinals, the semis and then the final, they quickly realize that as in real life, there is only one winner. There are tears, recriminations, realistic assessments and a will to improve on future occasions. For us, the joys are to be there for the journey. And what a charming journey it is, through the highs and lows, the candour, the humour and the ultimate thrill of achieving a dream.

Review by Andrew Urban:
What we want from a doco like this is exuberant music and dancing by the children, life affirming feelings and the results of positive values reflected in the kids who participate. Mad Hot Ballroom delivers on these fronts as precisely as any Hollywood blockbuster that sets out to push our buttons, only this time we don't complain.

Deceptively unprepossessing to begin with, Mad Hot Ballroom really gets its hooks into us about half way through, after we've come closer to some of the pupils. We are given a glimpse of the individual beneath, and of the troubles that, in some cases, they may have avoided by acquiring self esteem through this program. There is no attempt to glam them up, and no attempt to over-emphasise the social benefits of the dancing lessons, allowing us to wind our way through the film's subtext all by ourselves. More or less, anyway.

We hear about the problem homes many of these children come from and that information forms the rock bed of our emotional response. From there, we teeter on the edge of enthusiasm as they start picking up the rhythms, their little bodies swaying and stomping to some of music's most infectious beats. The triumphant structure add impetus to the film, and gives it traction.

Rehearsals take up much of the footage, intercut with a few interview grabs with the children that are predictably entertaining and insightful; the sharpest bits, though, are left for the end credits, where one youngster who wants to be an architect neatly rubbishes a building across the road with a pithy put down.

This, and other elements, add layers to the film, which has proved a hugely popular film at festivals around the globe, including Sydney (2005) where it won the Urban Cinefile Audience Award in both World Cinema and Sidebar Programs with its two screenings.

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(USA, 2005)

CAST: Documentary featuring pupils from New York Public Schools No. 112, 115 and 150.

PRODUCER: Marilyn Agrelo, Amy Sewell

DIRECTOR: Marilyn Agrelo

SCRIPT: Amy Sewell

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Claudia Raschke-Robinson

EDITOR: Sabine Krayenbhul

MUSIC: Steven Lutvak


RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 29, 2005


VIDEO RELEASE: March 15, 2006

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