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'Mad Hot Ballroom' works best when it's less reserved

| Thursday, June 9, 2005

Anyone who had the good fortune to see "Spellbound," the recent documentary about a spelling bee competition, will be that much more eager to see "Mad Hot Ballroom," which has similar aspirations if less success.

Marilyn Agrelo's film taps into a New York elementary school program launched by the American Ballroom Theater.

Public school fifth-graders engage in a 10-week program in which they learn the fox trot, the merengue, the tango, the rumba and a taste of swing.

They're working toward a citywide competition, which enthuses most but leaves some of the boys indifferent and even unwilling.

The film is vague about the details of the competition. At some point, the 10 best dancers from each school are paired off and a sixth couple waits in the wings as backup.

"Mad Hot Ballroom" concentrates on three schools in particular -- the relatively middle-class students from Lower Manhattan's TriBeCa, the predominantly Dominican students from Upper Manhattan's impoverished Washington Heights and the varied minority students from Brooklyn's Bensonhurst section.

The film's most candid moments are its best: Boys, 10 to 12 years of age, are reluctant to embrace their partners, much less to rise above their self-consciousness enough to make eye contact.

All of the children are endearing when they're clomping around with lead feet, rigid hips and sagging shoulders.

Later, there are the fallen faces and been-robbed remarks of those who can't understand why the judges didn't name them the winners. They do not grasp yet that winning is not the inevitable result of doing their best when they're in a competition.

"Mad Hot Ballroom" plays out against a background of strong pop recordings -- Peggy Lee's "Fever," Bobby Darin's "It's Only a Paper Moon" -- and it has the advantage, even over "Spellbound," of a photogenic activity.

And though it has fleeting insights, such as a quick visit with two Islamic boys who spin records at rehearsals because their religion forbids dancing, it never lets us get anywhere near knowing individually the students, teachers or dance instructors.

It skimps on too many particulars: How many days a week are rehearsals and for how many minutes• How voluntary is participation initially• What percentage drop out• What's available in later grades to those who complete the program• Why fifth grade instead of, say, eighth•

Documentaries have even more obligations to inform than to celebrate.

"Spellbound" was about the contestants, and by the end we knew quite a lot about each -- their backgrounds and personality styles. We developed numerous rooting interests.

"Mad Hot Ballroom" glosses over its dancers and then it loses its focus altogether at the climactic competition.

The film shows one student refusing a certain dance partner and leaving, but in its zeal to extol the program, it neglects context.

There's a single shot in which we half-glimpse a bit of shoving, but in the editing, we cut to an unrelated shot -- a possibly necessary gesture for legal or public relations reasons. But from then on I couldn't shake an awareness of how overly protective the film was being.

The picture is quite easy to like and admire. Audiences will enjoy it for what it is.

It's just that it confines itself to what you'd see during the daily feel-good doses of the Six O'Clock News. In this case the story seems good enough to be worth telling even better. Additional Information:

Details

'Mad Hot Ballroom'

Director: Directed by Marilyn Agrelo.

MPAA rating: PG for some thematic elements.

Three stars

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