Mad Hot Ballroom is the new Spellbound, a thoroughly charming, uplifting, and inspiring documentary that celebrates youthful perseverance. In contrast to the pressure-cooker setting of the national spelling bee, though, filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell chronicle the annual fifth-grade ballroom dancing competition in New York City’s public school system, concluding with a citywide competition held at the World Financial Center.
The scenes of the boys and girls taking their tentative first steps to learn the merengue, the foxtrot, and the tango are irresistible. But Mad Hot Ballroom isn't just about dancing. As one teacher notes, the program -- now serving 6,000 students from more than 60 schools -- is “about etiquette and knowledge of cultures. It’s life.” It’s also about universal rites of passage, as students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds share their thoughts. It is especially moving to see the children gain confidence in their abilities and become, as another teacher notes, “ladies and gentlemen.”
The students from a school in Washington Heights -- the most recently immigrated and poorest kids in the contest -- carry the underdog banner, and it’s hard not to root for them. By the time Mad Hot Ballroom reaches the climactic competition, it’s impossible not to feel the eliminated dancers’ heartbreak, and the winners’ exhilaration. There are no villains in this documentary, and the dedicated teachers at each school burnish the image of public education while making a very strong argument for...