Riding the wave of an ever-growing interest in documentary films among American moviegoers, director Marilyn Agrelo made a splash with the highly acclaimed and feel-good "Mad Hot Ballroom" (2005). The touching story of how fifth-graders from Tribeca, NY used dance to express themselves and discover their potential was a surprise hit in theaters and helped contribute to the already growing interest, both in film and on television, with old-school ballroom dancing.
First-time director Agrelo was born in Cuba when Castro came to power. When she was two years old, her family moved to the United States where she was raised in New York City.
Since the early 1990s, Agrelo had worked predominantly on industrial, promotional and fund-raising films before she co-produced "Smash the Kitty" (2003), a super low-budget indie film starring Jason Ritter. She had also developed art shows and museum installations, as well as directed commercials for Hasbro toys and Off-Broadway plays.
The idea of ordinary children learning ballroom dancing came to her through her friend and co-producer Amy Sewell. After writing a newspaper story about the Tribeca school system's fifth-grade dance program, Sewell approached Agrelo and insisted they do a movie on the subject. Agrelo, usually drawn to darker subjects, was hesitant at first, but was quickly won over and agreed to helm the project called "Mad Hot Ballroom." The women soon discovered that shooting a documentary was no walk in the park, as they dealt with unhappy parents, restless children and a shoestring budget. The film traced culturally diverse pre-teens as they learn various tango, salsa and foxtrot moves, taking their skills all the way to the grand finale competition in the Winter Gardens of the World Trade Center.
Upon completion, "Mad Hot Ballroom" was rejected by the Sundance Film Festival, but won entry into the neighboring Slamdance festival. After an initial screening, buyers quickly engaged in a bidding war for the distribution rights, with Paramount Classics winning out in the end. In its initial theatrical release, the film earned more than $8 million, making it the seventh highest-grossing documentary film in history. To top things off, it also won a Celebrate New York Award at the Gotham Awards and an Audience Award at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It was nominated for best documentary by the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
Following on the heels of her first hit, Agrelo's next documentary "Us and Them," was a more personal project which focused on her own family and how they bridged the cultural divide of the old world (Cuba) and the new (United States).