Mad Hot Ballroom: Inspiring Look into NYC School Kids

Mad Hot Ballroom offers an inspiring look into the lives of New York City school kids on a journey into the world of ballroom dancing, a new and unexpected arena where they discover truths about attitude, movement, style and commitment.

Told from the candid, sometimes hilarious perspective of the boys and girls themselves, the picture chronicles their transformation from typical urban kids to “ladies and gentlemen,” as their school teams aim towards a final citywide competition.

Providing unique insight into the incredible cultural diversity that is truly the soul of New York City, first time feature filmmakers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell profile eleven-year-olds from three public elementary schools. Shooting in neighborhoods, classrooms and in the fifth-graders’ homes, the filmmakers show all the contradictions of this dynamic and intriguing age, when growing pressure to become a “cool” teenager vies with rambunctious childlike innocence.

American Ballroom Theater’s (ABrT) Dancing Classrooms is the nonprofit organization that currently provides instruction in ballroom dance at over sixty public schools in New York City. The program was introduced in two schools ten years ago. In ten weeks of intense, required classes, the program’s skilled and passionately inventive teachers take their students through a dance repertory: the merengue, the rumba, the tango, the foxtrot and swing dancing. In the process, we see boys and girls learn a whole lot more than just how to make the right steps.

Near the end of the program, schools are given the choice to compete in what is called the Rainbow Team Matches. Each dance team is made up of five couples — one for each of the five dances, plus an alternate couple who must know how to do every dance well, as backup in case of illness. Forty-eight schools chose to compete last year; only nine made it to the final round.

Schools Take the Lead in the Movie:

P.S. 150, in trendy Tribeca, features downtown kids who are verbally confident, intellectually street-wise and consciously multi-cultural. Last year’s team brought Tribeca to the semifinals. This year’s team intends to take home the grand prize. They know just how hard they are working towards that goal.

P.S. 115 is far uptown in a Washington Heights neighborhood largely made up of working-poor Dominican immigrants. Ninety-seven percent of the school’s families are at poverty level or below. However, what Washington Heights lacks economically, it makes up for in culture, color and zest for life. These kids know how to move. Last year, P.S. 115 was a Gold finalist, just missing out on winning the giant first place trophy. This year, with a whole new crop of dancers, they plan to go all the way.

P.S. 112 is in Bensonhurst, a traditionally Italian neighborhood that within the last five years has become half-Asian. This fifth-grade class provides great comedy, as these Brooklyn kids accept ballroom dancing into their lives with much enthusiasm and lots of heart. Parents and friends rally around these exuberant children as they try their best while reminding us what is really important in life. They really want to win, but they also take pride in their progress.

Like SPELLBOUND before it, MAD HOT BALLROOM portrays the fierce passion that kids can bring to a competition. Yet it also celebrates the small steps of everyday life and reminds us of a moment in time when it seemed as if anything was possible. Amid the complexity of big city life, these kids take on a totally unfamiliar challenge and rise to the occasion. Some kids come from relative privilege; others from mean streets where gangs and drugs present daily danger, but they all learn to see past the borders. Dance becomes a way kids can express their individuality and explore the richness of a community all at the same moment, all with the same movements. Filled with wrenching emotion and joyful triumph, this documentary feature is a resounding exclamation point for growing up in America.

MAD HOT BALLROOM made its world premiere in January 2005 as the opening night film for the 2005 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film is directed by Marilyn Agrelo and produced by both Agrelo and Amy Sewell.



Class teacher Allison Sheniak is a loving, caring teacher who has a way of making you “feel her pain.”

Alex Tchassov, born in Russia, is the teaching artist from the American Ballroom Theater
( ABrT). With his gentle manner and his inventive analogies, he makes learning the dance steps a breeze.

Emma Biegacki stands out as the girl who is wise beyond her years. She intends to make sure the world hears what she has to say.

If she has her way, Tara Devon Gallagher will be on Broadway, in Hollywood or both some time in the very near future. An aspiring triple-threat actress/singer/dancer, Tara has already landed a lead role in an independent feature film, SWIMMERS, which showed at Sundance 2005.

If we encounter Cyrus Hernstadt as a U.S. Senator some day, it would not be surprising. He’s whip-smart and has a natural ability to ask questions that demand answers.

Zeb Liburd has the wonderful openness of an eleven-old-boy who hasn’t learned to play it safe; he wears his heart on his sleeve in everything he does.

Other P.S. 150 dance team members are Richard R. Brown IV, Willie C. Gantt, Dominic Guglielmo, Quana Jones, Celia B. Ortiz, Zelaina Rodriguez and Nile Roc Terry.


ABrT Teaching Artist Victoria Malvagno is charming and fun and her lessons are playfully powerful. It will be hard to ever forget the merengue hotel where people want to sleep on the top floors, ” while the party goes on below”.

Michael Vaccaro is lovable, cute and confident. He is also short, but Michael can deal with that.

Jia Wen Zhu and Priscilla Kwong are just two of the Asian girls in the class who give us some wonderful perspective on the way they see their world.

The other P.S. 112 kids on the dance team are Ariel Escoto, Sharese DeBiasi, Benjamin Feng, Mohammad Hussein, Nathalie Perez, Bleron Samarxhiu, David Wong, Jean Xiaoyi, and Sherry Zeng.


Yomaira Reynoso, the teacher who guides her class through the dance lessons with more than a touch of “hard love,” is vivacious, daring and ambitious.

Rodney Lopez, the ABrT teaching artist, adds a touch of class to the enterprise with his stylishly hip mannerisms. He’s someone these kids can relate to, but he also knows how to keep them in line.

Wilson Castillo is the little boy with the big, beautiful eyes who takes everyone’s breath away with his dance style.

Jatnna Toribio is confident, ambitious and precocious.

Elsamelys Ulerio’s dancing shows just how much goes on beneath that quiet exterior.

Kelvin Acevedo, while almost never saying a word, leads others by the pure force of his presence. His principal counts him as a kid who used the class to turn his life around.

The other dance team members from P.S. 115 are Joshua Duran, Jeffrey Espinal, Kevin Heredia, Kelvin Muoz, Scarlyn Nuez, Michell Rodriguez, Karina Sanchez and Angie Toribio.


Music is also a character in MAD HOT BALLROOM, setting mood and tone for every scene. With the help of the music of Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Della Reese, Bobby Darin, The Glenn Miller Band, Lucia Mendez, and Pochy Familia (to name just a few), kids from wildly disparate neighborhoods discover a common bond in sharing music that comes from other places, other eras. One of the joys of the picture is watching these kids make music they had never heard before into something very much their own.


FOX TROT : Said by some to have been originated by Harry Fox in 1913, the fox trot began as a “craze” but soon became a standard ballroom dance the world over. It serves
as a solid foundation for social dances in 2/4 or 4/4 time.

MERENGUE : Hips sway and sashay to a Latin rhythm that lets the kids cut loose and yet keep it under control.

RUMBA: The dance began in Cuba and is all about the marriage of cultures, the mix of movements. The beat plugs directly into the rhythm of life.

TANGO: Long limbs and sustained dramatic gestures give romance and dignity to the sensuality of a dance that captures the eternal contest between men and women.

SWING: Jump back to move forward in this all-American dance that instantly captivated the world, and still channels the energy of youth.