Before they leave elementary school, most kids have ballroom or square dancing introduced in their physical-education classes, which means dropping the fun of game-playing for the horror of touching their cooties-infected gender opposites. Throughout the irresistible Mad Hot Ballroom, an uplifting documentary about dance programs in New York City public schools, it's hard not to suspect that director Marilyn Agrelo cut all the shots of the kids recoiling from each other. But it appears that the American Ballroom Theater's Dancing Classrooms, the non-profit organization that sponsors the program, has found the right moment for students to get into dancing in earnest. At 11 years old, these 5th graders are at the perfect age: They're too old to view the opposite sex as foreign creatures, and too young to discard a thoroughly parent-approved activity as uncool. And as Agrelo's cheerleading chronicle attests, the dance lessons make "little ladies and gentlemen" out of them, at least for this precious window of time.
Clearly cut from the Spellbound mold, only sunnier to a fault, Mad Hot Ballroom follows three schools from wildly diverse economic and ethnic districts: P.S. 150 from affluent Tribeca, P.S. 112 from the primarily Italian and Asian Bensonhurst, and P.S. 115 from Washington Heights, a Dominican neighborhood where over 97 percent of residents live below the poverty line. With enthusiastic principals and instructors behind them, these students are rushed through a 10-week program leading up to the citywide "Rainbow Team" dance competition, where they demonstrate their skills in the tango, the merengue, the swing, the rumba, and the foxtrot. The kids get off to a predictably clumsy start, which means numerous shots of runty boys overwhelmed by gangly girls and ill-timed moves that send partners crashing into one another. But soon enough, they master the steps, the posture, and the attitude, and start to get swept up by the competitive spirit.
Mad Hot Ballroom tries to capture the colorful flavor of each neighborhood and the evolving feelings of children who are just beginning to change their views on the opposite sex. Some of the strongest scenes are candid front-stoop sessions in which the kids swap gossip and float some hilariously pre-sexual theories on romance. And as an incidental bonus, the film also shows how competition offers a tough but necessary lesson on loss, of kids doing their best and not achieving their goals, then coping with the fallout. But above all, Mad Hot Ballroom is really about children being so disarmingly adorable that an overlong, somewhat lackluster documentary about them can seem like an inspiring triumph.