Competitive dancing, strictly ballroom, among 10 and 11 year-old students is the subject of an infectious new documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom.
Marilyn Agrelo's feature may call to mind another documentary, Spellbound, which also was sweet, crowd-pleasing, and diversively honest.
Three New York City schools have contestants from Washington Heights, Bensonhurst, and Tribeca. Agrelo gives us a pretty good look at some of the kids and how dancing is a way for them to stay busy and avoid ending up on the wrong side of the tracks.
The less refined Bensonhurst team has added some Asians to their Brooklyn Italians, and the mainly upper-class Tribeca crew all already thinking of a vocation in the arts. And the austere Washington Heights area shows the poor Dominican fifth graders near reaching last year's finals.
You see much interaction that often is amusing between the lively kids, but the importance of the teachers who enrich each dance team is vital and their communication and focus reinforces the value of education in a huge, multi-cultural metropolis.
One observes similarities to the dances performed in the recent Shall We Dance? with Richard Gere and JLo - the foxtrot, merengue, rumba, swing, and the tango. If one couple can't perform due to an emergency or illness, each team has to have a backup ready to go.
Thus, Mad Hot Ballroom struts itself well even if it might feet a tad long as Agrelo works crisply with her editor and lenser Claudia Rasche-Robinson using digital video. The dedicated teams battle at the World Financial Center and the most nerving-racking moments come in the finals as one of the three goes up against an extremely composed and talented group from Queens.
There's a natural, hardly contrived flow to what goes on the dance floor and off it that makes the emotions and discipline effective in a rather cinematically articulate manner. Agrelo has all the right moves in her arsenal to make Mad Hot a ball for anyone enamored with the "American Idol" experience.