Mad Hot Ballroom's Marilyn Agrelo
Amy Sewell first approached me with her idea for this film in the summer of 2003. Although we had known each other for many years, our busy lives only occasionally crossed paths. As she described her amazing experiences writing about last year's Tribeca team, I became totally hooked. Her passion, excitement and enthusiasm were contagious. We both knew we would embark on this journey together, wherever it took us. Looking back on it, that day was monumental because it launched the best partnership Ive ever had.
During our early discussions, I suggested that we expand our account to include a few schools instead of one, so that we could take real advantage of the city's incredible diversity. What interested me most about the story we were going to tell was the contrast between kids from wide ranging socio-economic backgrounds and neighborhood environments.
Being a diehard New Yorker, I jumped at the chance to create a film that would be a love poem to New York. This is a story unique to our city and for me, the always-present urban backdrop embodied a main character. My idea was to create portraits of the city that would frame a scene or sequence of scenes, always reminding the audience of the landscape in which these kids live. We continuously worked to find ways of capturing the sights, feelings, tastes and personalities of the different neighborhoods we were exploring, and their particular nuances.
This topic seemed to require special handling. Wed be walking into the young lives of unsuspecting kids at a precarious age and watch them tackle unfamiliar ground at close range. The choice of cinematographer was key. Claudia Raschke-Robinson's prior documentary work showed a nice sensitivity and intimacy, which I wanted for this project. It was a great choice. She had an amazing ability to capture these kids, and yet give them freedom and space to show us their unabashed selves.
The three schools Amy and I chose (out of the 20 that we scouted) gave us such a rich array of urban kids. Each group was so distinct and singular in its own way.
Some of the Tribeca kids were amazingly articulate and worldly. We went to their school one day to introduce ourselves to the class and explain what we would be doing there. We asked them if they knew what a documentary film was. One small boy raised his hand and asked, “Do you guys have a distribution deal” This was the beginning of our awareness that the true flavor of this film would come as much from the kids' mouths as from their dance performances.
The Brooklyn school in many ways seemed the most pure. These kids appear to be the least influenced by the outside world. They come from working class families and there was a real beauty in their honesty and sweet innocence, not to mention the many hilarious scenes they provided, without even trying.
I was born in Cuba, and the Dominican kids touched me in a very profound way. Even though I didn't grow up in the same urban toughness that is their world, a lot of things about their culture and particularly their tight knit family lives were very familiar to me. It was awesome to see them channel their natural instincts in this way, because I knew theyd watched their parents, aunts and uncles dance through any and every occasion in crowded living rooms their whole lives, as I had.
Ill always be grateful to Sabine Krayenbuehl for editing this film. We constantly discussed the characters and story and her insights, creativity and intelligence were critical. I don't know how I could have compressed over 150 hours of footage without her incredible storytelling talents.
All of us were moved by the experience of making this film in countless ways. It was a privilege to be let in to all these lives so unconditionally. And most memorably I don't think Ive ever laughed so hard in my whole life.
In February of 2003, I began research for what would be a feature story for The Tribeca Trib about a neighborhood school's fifth-graders who have to take a mandatory semester of ballroom dancing instruction.
The first class I could barely write a word. I was mesmerized: by the kids, all their expressions, and what twist or flavor they might put on something I thought, as old and staid as ballroom dancing; by the dance instructor and his hilarious style of instruction; by the teacher and her focus on her kids; and by the dynamic interplay that bounced around the room. I watched these very New York City kids do a very New York City thing, but not common to their reality, and with my native-Midwestern view of “always on the outside looking in,” what I saw thrilled me. I thought to myself, “This would make a great movie.”
I wrote the article, excruciatingly condensing 50,000 words to 1,500 words. Realizing that journalism writing did not, and could not, tell the story I saw with my eyes, my desire to tell it another way was heightened.
Marilyn and I have known each other for over 10 years. Our careers and lives (hers in production and mine in motherhood) kept our getting together to an annual event. During these outings, after a glass of red wine or two, and intrigued by what she did professionally, Id always say to her, “Marilyn, let's make a movie together.” She'd ask “About what” Id reply, “I don't know.” And shed nicely reply, “Well, when you know, give me a call.”
My article was published in July, 2003 and in August I called Marilyn. Thus began this film's journey. We began with the focus on American Ballroom Theater (ABrT), the organization that provides the ballroom dancing instruction through their program called “Dancing Classrooms.” Originally I thought the documentary would be about the next 5th-grade class at P.S. 150, Tribeca. But then Marilyn suggested following three or four schools. I thought it was a great idea and our search began.
We scouted 20 of the 60 schools that compete in the program. We considered many factors; the teachers, the facilities, the neighborhoods, the logistics of shooting, etc. and eventually narrowed it down to our 3 schools.
Each school had strong, distinctive determining elements that led us to our choices. I stayed fixated on P.S. 150 because this downtown public city school is unique in that there is only one class per grade. These same kids had been together since Kindergarten. However, their long-term intimacy also had the potentially tumultuous effect of making the class too insular. While smart and street-wise, these Tribeca kids were a little more protected, but this circumstance indeed helped to make them stand out.
The key to choosing Bensonhurst-school P.S. 112 was Victoria Malvagno, the ABrT dance teacher. She had a larger-than-life presence and we thought she would be a good person to help move the story along. As an added benefit, this neighborhood thrilled us with its transitional flavor of changing from an almost all Italian neighborhood five years ago to now almost 50% Asian.
We chose P.S. 115 in Washington Heights because of teacher Yomaira Reynoso. She was strong, interesting and confident. We felt she was going to give us “a story” whether we asked for one or not! In addition to Yomaira, ABrT dance teacher Rodney Lopez, complimented her verve with a lovely touch of class. The kids all started out just as silent as mice — but oh, could they dance.
So as the production began, the “cast of characters” unfolded and the dance organization (ABrT) and even most of the adults eventually fell away. As if in a slow bloom, the movie found its focus — a story told, and thus driven, by the kids. It wouldn't have been a production without production hurdles of course. Two weeks prior to the start of shooting, (we had to begin with the start of the Spring class schedule this was not flexible), the New York City Department of Education decided they really didn't want us shooting inside the schools during class hours. After much stress and good use of any and all contacts we both knew who had any kind of connection with this Godzilla of a bureaucracy, three days prior to the first shoot day, we got approval.
Some other challenges included collecting over 700 release forms from every kid that danced or might have danced in front of the camera. Each principal seemed to be only 4-feet tall but packed a big punch. Add parents into the mix — some joyful, some cautious (and rightfully so). And then there were the kids. A lot of kids.
Each neighborhood had its own character and challenges but P.S. 115, Washington Heights was certainly the most exciting. There was a fair share of interesting stories; a police raid in the middle of an interview in a restaurant everyone down on the floor with seven cops and guns drawn — to arrest a couple guys wanted for murder, dealers using my van's tailpipe as a storage unit while they worked the corner close to where I parked, a guy being chased by another with a huge stick (we didn't stick around to find out why or what eventually happened), and the occasional barrage of harassment thinking we were “los federales” (FBI). It didn't happen that often but often enough to take note. And in all fairness, there were times that we almost felt protected by “the street” after word spread that we were filming a good story about the kids in the neighborhood.
By wanting to do this project only with Marilyn, I got so much more than I could ever ask for. We had different strengths to bring to the table. I handled a lot of the traditional business aspects but we collaborated on the creative. Marilyn handled all the technical aspects of filmmaking, created the budget, hired the crew, and directed the production. We made a nice team.
Add to that, after all these years thinking she was Italian (helloAgrelo), when needed most on a scout to interview a kid up in Washington Heights, out of her mouth poured fluent Spanish. Needless to say, another plus having her as a partner for this project.
If I had to say what was the greatest thing about the whole journey, it's that for a short time in our lives, these kids bared their souls to us and gave us such a rare and special glimpse into their little, often sometimes, complicated lives, and let us see the magic that is in each and every one of them. For that, I will be forever grateful.
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