‘Ballroom’ moves

Documakers navigate N.Y. neighborhoods for their local 'love poem'

Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell have been on a long journey with “Mad Hot Ballroom.” We’re not just talking about their trek from Slamdance to a $8 million-grossing national release via Paramount Classics to recently being shortlisted for Oscar docu category. They trekked far just to make the film.

They spent so much time traveling between three schools in Washington Heights, Tribeca and Bensonhurst that writer-producer Sewell stopped counting the mileage she was supposed to be tracking for tax purposes. That’s to say nothing of counting up the charges in parking tickets.

Agrelo, who is originally from Cuba, and Sewell, from the Midwest, spent months riding around in Sewell’s ancient minivan, enduring traffic jams and other urban inconveniences to film their singular New York story about 11-year-olds competing in a dance competition.

The filmmakers would start their days at 5 a.m. — Agrelo from Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Sewell from Tribeca — to start picking up crew and equipment. The group would either head up to Washington Heights, which took up a full day, or they’d split a day between the Tribeca and Bensonhurst schools. That often left one of their vital crew circling the schools for parking while the others rushed in with cameras rolling.

“By going to these three schools, we were really able to catch the uniqueness that is New York and its diversity,” says Sewell.

But in Washington Heights, they encountered some shady local elements — drug dealers. At one point, they were filming two girls on a street, with Agrelo walking backwards in front of the children. A group of men parted ways for them and said to each other, “Be cool, they have a microphone.”

Agrelo thought they were being polite. “I thanked them,” she says. “Then I realized that they weren’t doing that so as not to ruin the shot. They were in the middle of a deal.”

Another time, the crew returned to the van to find a dealer asking them to wait a second while he pulled his stash out of their tailpipe. “We became integrated into the neighborhood,” says Agrelo. “It’s weird to be validated by drug dealers, but it was really great.”

“The thing that attracted me most was that this was a story about New York and it had been my dream to tell a New York story,” she continues. “This was a real love poem to the city.”

A year after filming, Agrelo, who is working on a new feature, and Sewell keep in close touch with their young subjects. Before a recent appearance on “The Tony Danza Show” to promote the pic’s DVD release, Sewell took some of the girls shopping for new outfits in Washington Heights.

The movie’s concept will also live on. Agrelo and Sewell are consulting on a fictionalized version of the story for Paramount, which is not to be confused with a New Line project with Antonio Banderas that focuses on the ballroom-dancing teachers.