Confronted by her friend Amy Sewell, a freelance writer, who had just completed an article on American Ballroom Theater’s (ABrT) Dancing Classrooms, a nonprofit organization that provides free ballroom dance instruction to over 60 public schools in New York City, Marilyn Agrelo’s attention was instantaneously captured when she met the elementary kids who would star in her documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.”
Originally from Cuba, and moving to New York at the age of 2, Agrelo, who graduated from New York University with a degree in Communications, began her career making corporate videos, commercials and small independent films.
When presented with the idea for her first feature film, Agrelo said she knew it was going to be a lot of hard work, but was up for the challenge.
“I became very enthusiastic about it and brought up that we should follow more than one school,” Agrelo said. “We started to scout many schools and started to develop the story.”
Looking at 25 schools that participated in ABrT, Argelo and her crew narrowed the field down to three elementaries, Washington Heights, Tribeca and Bensonhurst, to follow in their quest for the ultimate goal – winning the citywide ballroom dancing competition.
“These three schools really personified so many different qualities that were interesting to contrast,” Agrelo said. “We really like what each one of them brought to the table.”
Although the film centers around the children’s talents in dancing, Agrelo said viewers should get more out of it than a simple swing step.
“To me this is not a story primarily about dance,” Agrelo said. “It’s a story about taking an intimate peek into the lives of 11-year-old kids. It’s a story about diversity and hope.”
With over 150 hours of footage, Agrelo edited the film into a two-hour “love poem to New York.” At the end, she said she was amazed at how each child grew through the duration of filming.
“I saw these kids develop pride and walk a little bit taller and develop manners,” Agrelo said. “The transformation goes way beyond learning dance steps. That was an incredible thing to witness.”