Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Welcome to the Ballroom
GN 1 & 2
Tatara Fujita is feeling lost – at fifteen years old, he's being pressured to start thinking about his future and apply for high schools, but he doesn't think he's good at anything and has no ambitions in life. Then one day, he's saved from a group of bullies by a man on a motorcycle, who mistakenly thinks Tatara's looking at a poster for a ballroom dance studio. Before he knows what's happening, Tatara finds himself taking a dance lesson. He's still feeling leery of it when an instructor slips a DVD into his bag, but when he sees the man who rescued him perform as a professional Latin dance champion, Tatara is sold. But does he really have time to reach the top as a young professional from such a beginner level? All he knows is that his soul is telling him to dance!
In terms of sports that are often denigrated as not being “real,” ballroom dance and cheerleading are probably at the top of the list. It is true that both have elements of the performing arts to them, and since it lacks the acrobatic feats of cheerleading, ballroom is often placed more firmly in that category. But if you've ever seen or experienced dancesport in person, you know that there's nothing soft about it – it's physically demanding and can be incredibly difficult. That's a reality that Tomo Takeuchi's Welcome to the Ballroom doesn't shy away from, and it's a large part of what makes her debut series so powerful.
The series follows fifteen-year-old middle school student Tatara Fujita, a young man who has no idea where he's going in life. He may hide it on the surface, but this bothers him, because he can't figure out how to change his circumstances. Fortunately, an outside agent of change comes swooping into his life when a young man named Sengoku rescues him from a group of bullies, before dragging him to a ballroom dance studio for a waltz lesson. Even though Tatara enjoys it, he's not comfortable with the physicality of ballroom, especially when his classmate Shizuku turns out to be a semi-professional dancer affiliated with the studio. He's all set to quit when a teacher slips a DVD of Sengoku competing professionally in Latin dance (cha cha, rumba, paso doble, etc), and seeing professional dancesport in action fills Tatara with passion. He still won't tell his father and grandmother, but at last he has a goal: he's going to become a professional dancer.
Those who have seen the film Strictly Ballroom or the original Japanese Shall We Dance? may recognize elements of both movies in these first two manga volumes. Most notable is the discomfort Tatara feels with the amount of touching required by ballroom, which is entirely composed of partnered dances. Takeuchi does particularly well with illustrating how much the sexuality of dancesport is part of the show – “partner” is not synonymous with “dating,” and the sensuality of each dance must be an act to some degree. We see this most clearly in volume two, when Tatara gets an official partner. She's not the girl he's crushing on, but the demands of the dance still require him to touch her in ways that he would not normally touch a girl according to social rules. He does still get flustered when Sengoku tells him to line his hand up with her bra strap, but that feels more like an awkward teen moment than anything else. Takeuchi also does a nice job highlighting the performative aspects of competitions, from Shizuku wearing outfits that look far too adult for her age to the forced smiles every dancer must have plastered to their faces. While there is the usual dripping sweat that we see in manga to indicate activity, it's a bit more subtle than usual, with motion lines and a sense of muscle tension showing how hard the dancers are working instead.
It helps that Takeuchi seems to have a firm grasp of musculature and anatomy. The art gives us a real idea of which muscles are doing what in any given dance, and we can see the tight control that the dancers have over their bodies. This is most noticeable with the women, Shizuku in particular, as they wear gowns that leave more of their bodies exposed, but the angles of the men's heads and arms also speak of the strict discipline that goes into perfect form. That form is one of Tatara's stumbling blocks in general, and to see the difference between how he and Hyodo stand when dancing with the same partner gives us an idea of how far Tatara has to go to fulfill his dream.
Of course, this could have the best art and dancing in manga and mean nothing if we can't like the characters, so it's fortunate that Tatara's determination and his journey from aimless to driven is easy to get behind. Tatara is a combination of embarrassed and eager, uncertain and utterly positive. This makes him feel like a real person who isn't only consumed by one passion and expresses conflicting feelings, while still being a slight enigma to the people at the dance studio. Most of them have been dancing since early childhood, so at first they think that Tatara is making light of what it takes to be a dancer, especially Sengoku, who is the most difficult character to like. He continually tries to use Tatara for his own ends, particularly at the end of volume one and start of volume two when Shizuku's partner, Hyodo, has a crisis at a major competition. For the man who dragged Tatara into dance in the first place, his sudden antagonism seems out of place, unless we are to believe that he's so insecure that a champion of his caliber is threatened by a fifteen-year-old who's just starting out. Tatara certainly doesn't see himself that way, and while he does aspire to dance as well as Sengoku someday, he's also not at all confident that he can. It's just that now that he's discovered his new passion, he can't stop dancing.
At its heart, these first two volumes of Welcome to the Ballroom are about both finding a passion in life and that's there's so much more to ballroom dancing than most people think. For Tatara, the two go hand-in-hand, and his fresh eyes on the sport show us how he stands in contrast to some of the more seasoned dancers, who can only see it as a competition and have lost some of their enjoyment for it. More true to dancesport than Natsumi Ando's Let's Dance a Waltz and as absorbing as Haikyu, Welcome to the Ballroom begins a journey that's instantly compelling.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Anatomically realistic artwork shows the discipline and stress involved in dance, doesn't confuse dance partners with romance, Tatara's enthusiasm tempered with uncertainty is relatable
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