Innocent and vivacious and charming as they are, it’s easy to watch the New York City public-school children in Mad Hot Ballroom and think that the movie is treating them as exotic pets. This is a documentary about fifth graders who join a 10-week after-school program in which they’re taught ballroom dancing. If you want to see an image that’s coyly hilarious in its incongruity, it would be hard to top that of 11-year-old boys and girls doing the merengue, the rumba, the fox-trot, and the tango — hot dances, built on the flirtation of loose hip sockets, that are borderline funny even when adults do them because they’re essentially stylized foreplay. The students in Mad Hot Ballroom concentrate with touching single-mindedness on their steps — they’re like munchkins puttin’ on the Ritz — yet they’re blissfully oblivious to the sensual aspect of what they’re doing. When one verbally precocious child displays his ”tango face” (head down, eyebrows lowered), it’s like watching a seal play water volleyball — you don’t know whether to give him a hand or toss him a snack.
Kids…they do the darnedest things! That, for a while, appears to be the attitude of Marilyn Agrelo, who has directed Mad Hot Ballroom with a facile yet unmistakably clever feel for what it takes to create a crowd-pleasing documentary. Agrelo focuses on three different schools from a trio of New York neighborhoods — posh Tribeca, tough Bensonhurst, and low-income Washington Heights — and though she interviews a handful of the children and gives us slivers of their lives, we get to know them in only the sketchiest of ways. The movie is like a superficial version of Spellbound seasoned with a pinch of Hoop Dreams tossed with American Idol.
But then something inspiring happens. The after-school program culminates in a competition, and as Mad Hot Ballroom moves from the quarterfinals to the semis and so on, the kids grow more artful, until they begin to look and move like dancers. Through the grace of their talent and the sweat of their devotion, they feel their way toward the sinuousness of the adults they’re imitating. As their moves catch fire, their herky-jerky sensuality morphing into the real thing, they stop being funny because they’ve grown into who they are. Mad Hot Ballroom has an overly conventional children-of-the-city uplift; it offers an obligatory montage of sashaying kids cut to ”Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Yet Agrelo, to her credit, never preaches about the importance of government funding for after-school programs. She doesn’t have to: Her entire movie is a testament to the discipline, humor, and life of kids who swing.