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Behavior modification

Dayna Papaleo

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The American Ballroom Theater's 10-week Dancing Classroom program teaches 7,000 fourth through sixth graders from over 60 New York City public schools how to cut a rug. The course culminates in an annual borough-spanning competition at the World Financial Center in which five couples from a number of the participating schools vie for the top prize. What do they win? Just one oversized trophy, 365 days' worth of bragging rights, and an incalculable amount of self-esteem.

Marilyn Agrelo's adorable documentary Mad Hot Ballroom follows the dance classes at three of the schools --- Bensonhurst's PS 112, Washington Heights' PS 115, and TriBeCa's PS 150 --- as the students go from tiny oafs to graceful young ladies and gentlemen. And of course the instruction is not just about the dancing; it also has everything to do with teamwork, culture, confidence, and dedication.

"It's like a sport that hasn't been invented into a sport!"

The kids are curiously enthusiastic about the decade-old dance program, which teaches them Latin (the merengue and the rumba) and ballroom dance (the foxtrot, the tango, and the waltz), as well as swing and line dancing. I know that when I was a kid and we square-danced in gym class the notion of having to touch some cootie-laden nerd for 45 minutes was not pleasant. But the children of Ballroom seem to have no such hang-ups --- no one seems to care about their partner's body shape, skin color, or perceived hipness factor.

And the dance instructors are a patient, passionate, and devoted bunch, understanding the need to make the instruction both fun and relevant (the Washington Heights students are primarily of Dominican descent, and so is the merengue). The teachers want to win the year-end competition as much as the kids do, but more emphasis is placed on the journey rather than the destination.

Ballroom doesn't really get too in-depth with the home lives of the children, which I didn't find to be a flaw. These kids are Everykids, doing the things most kids do (like warily observing the opposite gender) and saying the things most kids would say (i.e., "It's fun being 10!"). But by the time we get to the "Colors of the Rainbow" matches in the film's denouement, we're thoroughly attached to these children and our hearts alternately break and soar with those of the now-poised young people. And the finale is as thrilling as "the big game" in any clichéd sports movie --- let's just say that the filmmakers got awfully lucky.

One nagging thought: Was I the only person who got kind of uncomfortable watching 10-year-olds trying to master the tango? These kids are at the crossroads between childhood and adolescence, and listening to their teacher instruct them about that particular dance's reliance on passion and becoming one with your partner left me wondering how much of that they could (or should) comprehend. Children get to be young for such a short time. One of the girls announced, "When I'm big I'm gonna be in the mood for boys," and I crossed my fingers that that time wouldn't come too soon.

The only phrase that would cause me to avoid a movie faster than "Starring Christina Ricci" is the phrase "Direct to video." I'm sure some flicks were never intended as domestic theatrical releases, banking on the fact that some square-headed action star will generate big bucks in the foreign market and five or six desperate Americans might snag the DVD at Blockbuster. But what about a film like Control, which stars acting heavyweights like Ray Liotta, Willem Dafoe, and Stephen Rea, and is directed by a guy (Tim Hunter, who will be in town to present the film) with episodes of Carnivale, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Twin Peaks under his belt? How bad could it be?

It's actually not that bad, and for that you can thank the underrated and underemployed Liotta (the semi-trite script, however, is not worthy of your gratitude). Liotta plays multiple murderer Lee Ray Oliver, who chooses to receive an experimental course of behavior-modifying drugs rather than the traditional lethal injection. Conducting this trial is a kind-hearted neuropharmacologist named Dr. Copeland (Willem Dafoe), the Pygmalion to Oliver's Galatea. Copeland supervises Oliver's release into the wild, where the "textbook sociopath" attempts to assimilate back into society, despite the fact that old scores need to be settled.

Control contains its share of suspense as it manipulates the audience on occasion. But it's Liotta's riveting performance as a man who may or may not be making the leap from rage to remorse that anchors the film, which tries to shine a light on the wisdom of and need for mood-altering pharmaceuticals.

Mad Hot Ballroom (PG) opens at the Little Theatre on Friday, June 24. | Control (R) screens Saturday, June 18, at the Dryden Theatre.

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