Decades after Harold Hill told of trouble in River City, there's a renewed drive to find wholesome activities that can keep our kids off the streets. In today's New York, apparently, the diversion of choice is ballroom dancing: More than 50,000 students take part in a citywide competition that pits elementary school against elementary school, allowing the junior hoofers to display the fruits of 10 weeks of intensive instruction in the rumba, the swing, the merengue and other steps not commonly associated with gang violence.
The documentary Mad Hot Ballroom takes up that cause with all the zeal of an inner-city politician crusading for after-school basketball leagues. Like just such a grandstanding politico, the movie is better at preaching the socializing influence of "proper" activity than it is at getting fully involved with the beneficiaries. Extensively compiled and beautifully photographed but shaky on specifics, director Marilyn Agrelo's doc offers surface-skimming profiles of competitors from three geographical areas: downtown (P.S. 150 in Tribeca), uptown (P.S. 115 in Washington Heights) and the boroughs (P.S. 112 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn). As they practice their way toward the final dance-off that will crown one school the victor, the pint-sized Astaires are also picking up gentility points that will goose their integration into polite society.
A faculty member at P.S. 115 notes that its student body mostly Dominican and exhibiting a 95 percent poverty rate can't afford outside dance instruction; unlike residents of some other neighborhoods, the entirety of their competitive edge stems from what they can learn in the program. That class-warfare angle is one of many points of view the film toys with but fails to properly exploit. At first, the doc appears to endorse dance as a character-building exercise for young ones who might otherwise run afoul of the law. But when one team gets bitterly eliminated at the 55-minute mark, we're treated to a contradictory suggestion that it might not be so wise to make every in-school undertaking a competition. Though fleeting, it's an infinitely more interesting position than the standard-issue, stand-up-and-cheer spectatorship into which we're subsequently herded.
While the mini-interviews with the children are often fascinating the Tribeca enrollees, especially, are all too aware of the trials that await them in the adult world Agrelo is determined to grant so many of them screen time that we barely learn any of their names. Mad Hot Ballroom trumpets the danger that, without stabilizing influences like the fox trot, these impressionable youths might get hopelessly lost in the city and the system. All the while, they're getting lost in their own movie.