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Viewers win with ‘Mad Hot’

There’s nothing more charming than watching children cope with adult situations. Truth is they often handle them as well, and as gracefully, as their elders do.

Grace is a fitting word when it comes to the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” a film conceived and written by Amy Sewell and directed by Marilyn Agrelo, because it involves dancing. And the very best of the film’s 11-year-old dancers boast a grace that most will never possess.

Having premiered Jan. 21 at the 2005 Slamdance Film Festival – less-exalted rival of Park City, Utah’s annual Sundance Film Festival – “Mad Hot Ballroom” explores the annual rite, a decade old now, of New York fifth-graders learning how to ballroom dance. Thanks to the American Ballroom Theater, the students get the opportunity not only to learn the various dances – not just the fox trot but also the merging, the rumba and even swing – but also to compete against each other to see who has absorbed the lessons best.

Agrelo’s cameras go across New York, from Manhattan’s TriBeCa and Washington Heights to Brooklyn and Queens, capturing the dance-happy spirit that affects some 60 elementary schools. Agrelo introduces us not only to the students, some of whom we get to know well, but also their teachers.

And while the film, similar to the 2002 spelling-bee documentary “Spellbound” before it, follows a standard arc – it progresses from beginning lessons to the showdown finals between two schools with very different student bodies – what makes “Mad Hot Ballroom” special is the social psychology of the 11-year-old mind.

Think back to fifth grade: How many of us were comfortable in our own skins, much less willing to spend an hour holding hands with a girl or guy (“Eeewwwww!!!”). These kids do not only that, but they endure hours of their teacher trying to teach them complicated steps that must be done not just by the book but, as some students just can’t figure out, with a sense of style.

And – here comes that word again – grace.

So to fill out the film’s near-two-hour running time, Agrelo shows the kids in conversation, talking about everything from race to violence to pre-teen dating to their hopes for the future. And while it’s obvious that some of these kids are more comfortable in front of the camera than others, and that various scenes are set up for effect, “Mad Hot Ballroom” never feels scripted. This is no junior “American Idol.”

Some of the film’s more affecting moments include Tara Devon Gallagher’s confusion about what she possibly could have done to avoid having her dreams of stardom dashed; Cyrus Hernstadt’s refusal to believe that the judges are right; Emma Biegacki’s pre-adolescent self-assurance; Wilson Castillo’s ability to let his dancing talk for him; the cheerleading of teachers such as Yomaira Reynoso and Rodney Lopez, educators who devote long hours giving their students the skills, not to mention hope, that might make all the difference in their futures.

In the end, not everyone can be happy. But there are lessons to learn even in defeat.

The lucky thing for us is that our role is the easy one. We win just by getting to watch one of the best films of 2005.

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