'Mad Hot Ballroom' Dances into Audience's Heart

Some fourth and fifth graders in New York City are the stars of the new movie Mad Hot Ballroom. Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan says these kids will fox trot, merengue, rumba, tango and swing their way into your heart.

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Combine gritty New York City public school kids with the privileged world of ballroom dancing and you get a documentary called "Mad Hot Ballroom." Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan has a review.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

This engaging film combines the warm charm of "Spellbound" with the kinetic energy of "Strictly Ballroom." It will make you want to laugh, cry and do a little dancing yourself, maybe all at the same time.

(Soundbite of "Mad Hot Ballroom")

Unidentified Man: Five, six, ready, go.

TURAN: "Mad Hot Ballroom" focuses on an annual citywide competition that encompasses the program's five dances: fox-trot, merengue, rumba, tango and swing. The action, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, cuts back and forth between three public schools in different parts of the city. The film culminates in an emotional dance-off for the enormous trophy that goes to New York's number one dance team.

The film's fourth- and fifth-graders, still a few years from the mad hormones of adolescence, seem hardly likely to embrace the physical touch and constant eye contact ballroom dancing demands. But the wonder of "Mad Hot Ballroom" is that these kids embrace dance and even get to love it. `It's like a sport that hasn't been invented yet,' one boy enthuses about ballroom's so old it's new charms.

(Soundbite of "Mad Hot Ballroom")

Unidentified Boy: I always think about it. And sometimes, if I don't do the steps, I just go over them in my mind, even if I'm not doing them, 'cause I always want--I really want to be in this competition, so I'm trying my hardest to get in.

TURAN: These dancers get all but addicted to the chance to do something well and feel good about themselves in the process. And because they are so young, not old enough to dissemble and hide their feelings behind bland facial expressions, their disappointments and their joy are easy for us to read and to share in.

(Soundbite of "Mad Hot Ballroom")

Unidentified Girl #1: You've got to take a deep breath. Every single one of you did an amazing job. ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: We have three more points to go through.

Unidentified Girl #2: I still really don't understand what happened.

TURAN: As the film progresses, we can literally see these young people start to feel better about themselves as their dancing skills improve. When one teacher says, between tears, `I see them turning into these ladies and gentlemen,' you know what she's crying about. Though the kids who don't do well in the citywide contest often end up in tears themselves, the film makes you believe they are all winners. They just don't see it yet.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and for the Los Angeles Times. This is NPR News.

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