Mad Hot Ballroom

LAST WEEK I sat down with Marilyn Agrelo, the warm and chatty New York–based director of Mad Hot Ballroom (SIFF screenings are past; movie now in theaters; see film calendar). "I'll tell you why this is a perfect age," she says of her fifth-grade subjects. "You're at an age where you're not a little kid anymore. You're just starting to feel your independence a little bit. You're not jaded or rebellious yet. With us, as a camera crew working with them, they were still open and trusting. Which would've been a challenge at 14. That would've been a nightmare." Were her subjects camera-shy? "With an adult, you can sit down and do a one-on-one with a camera on. And you can't really do that with these kids, because they're too hyperaware of the camera. If there's an activity that they're doing . . . then it all came out; the magic started to flow. We also had a very small camera. The film was shot at a very low angle . . . from the point of view of the kids. All of these things worked together to disarm them." Ballroom also captures these children at the cusp of their potential, Agrelo adds: "It's beautiful, and it's scary. It's like a blank canvas. The kids in TriBeCa—you can get a sense that this little boy Cyrus is maybe going to be a lawyer. He's so outspoken, so intelligent. And then you go uptown, and you see these kids and you wonder about their potential and their future. Like this boy Wilson, who's incredibly beautiful and a master dancer and barely speaks English. And what's going to become of him? Who is going to be his role model? I hope it's not the drug dealer in the street." That's why the dance program isn't just about etiquette for the Washington Heights students, it's about competition and toughness. "That was sort of what the teacher wanted for them," she notes. "To feel that they're not outsiders—that they can, if they try, compete in this world. Uptown, [teacher] Yomaira is like, 'You're tired? Too bad. Get up and dance.'" The Seattle International Film Festival continues through Sun., June 12. Visit for schedule, tickets, and details. Call 206-324-9997 for info and 206-324-9996 for tickets. In-person advance tickets: Pacific Place and Broadway Performance Hall (11 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat.; noon–6 p.m. Sun.). Same- day tickets: Individual venues open 30 minutes before first show.

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