Is Tatara cut out to cut a rug?

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Title: 
Welcome to the Ballroom (Ballroom e Yōkoso)
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Kodansha (JP), Kodansha USA (US)
Creator: Tomo Takeguchi
Translator: Karen McGillicuffy
Original Release Date:  September 27, 2016
Review copy provided by Kodansha USA.

Just a few years ago it seemed as if the anime and manga publishing worlds were blowing everyone away with the sudden explosion of sports stories and the sheer variety of activities covered. By now many readers feel wiser and more worldly — “Ah yes, Japan has stories on every sport!” but every now and then a new title comes around which makes you pause and think “Really, competitive ballroom dancing?”

Welcome to the Ballroom isn’t even the only currently serialized ballroom dancing manga in Japan and, bucking recent trends, is a shounen manga, aimed at teenage boys instead of woman. This difference in demographic can be seen immediately in the art style; while none of the characters are drawn in an overly cartoonish, gronk style, leading man Tatara Fujita is certainly the plainest of the bunch. Sadly Tatara isn’t a very engaging main character so far. It’s hard to tell if he was intentionally written a little blank in order to let the reader project onto him or if creator Tomo Takeguchi truly believes that any teenager could be as aimless about their own likes and dislikes as Tatara is. This feels especially jarring given Tatara’s slow slip into the world of dancing; he’s obviously partially drawn in by his attractive classmate Shizuku who practices at the same studio that Tatara finds himself in, but it’s only after Tatara watches a video of past competitions and feels the dancers’ desires to be the center of attention that his attention is truly grabbed. These two emotions seem so distant from each other that it doesn’t quite work yet. One can’t even argue that Tatara is simply being dragged along by the flow given just how much effort he’s put into practicing dancing so far.

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Another way the story is revealing its shounen roots is by just how Tatara approaches dancing. He falls firmly into the category of “Mostly talentless youngster with an earnest desire and the briefest flashes of TRULY GREAT POTENTIAL” which is a set-up that would be equally at home in a shounen fighting manga. So far Tatara’s improvement has also been on par with the pacing of a slow-burn, tournament shounen story as well. Every time Tatara begins to make progress it turns out that he is failing in some other critical way, and while this is potentially a realistic set-up it’s not most engaging storyline.

The ballroom dancing scenes by comparison are quite intense and are filled with an almost claustrophobic amount of lines; there’s barely an untoned centimeter of paper to be seen. As someone who hasn’t watched competitive ballroom dancing before I felt a little lost during the scenes, and having looked at some videos after reading the manga I’m still a bit lost! The general concept of how the competitions work is easy enough to understand, but the manga’s art makes the dances look far more frantic, speedy, and frankly sexualized than the real world clips I came across. That last part is especially awkward given how Tatara and Shizuka are only around 16; Shizuka is already being labeled as someone who does a shameful and indecent sport, something we haven’t seen lobbied at the male characters yet. Regardless, it’s not necessary for the reader to understand every move the characters are making to follow the story but if the story does choose to dive into the more technical aspects in future volumes then the art, this could become a problem.

What intrigued me the most about this first volume was Tatara’s relationship with Shizuka’s dance partner, the terse Kiyoharu who everyone is quick to label as Tatara’s “rival” even if Tatara is clearly uncomfortable with the idea.  There’s been a palpable, intentional awkwardness to every one of their interactions so far and I’m curious about what ultimately drives Kiyoharu since currently his reasons for dancing are even more muddled than Tatara’s. Watching an underdog struggle to the top doesn’t always make for the most engaging sports story but hopefully with interesting characters at his side Tatara’s time spent dancing with the stars with be an energetic one.