When I was starting out at university I was interested in both the Ballroom Dancing Club and the Anime & Manga Society. Ballroom dancing would be cultured, sophisticated and improving (plus there'd be girls) but I was intrigued by the Anime & Manga Society too - I didn't really watch much anime at all during my teenage years at secondary school but I had played a lot of video games, defiantly bearing aloft Sega's tattered banner against the ravening hordes of the Sony-ites, and I was curious to see more of the mystical land that they hailed from. As it happened their meetings clashed, so I had to choose between the two; in the end I went for Anime & Manga Society because the Ballroom Dancing Club charged membership and lesson fees, so an evening with a bunch of guys doing our own Rifftrax on fansubs in a lecture theatre would be a cheaper night out.
Twelve years, a garage full of DVDs, an attic full of mangas, and a few thousand pounds later, I can certainly say that didn't quite work out. Sometimes I look back and wonder what might have been if I'd gone to the union building instead of the physics building that night, and rather cheekily Welcome to the Ballroom answers that question in manga form.
Tatara Fujita is in his final year of middle school and getting to the stage where he needs to start applying for high schools, choose his specialty subjects and set out career plans - the problem is though that he has no clue what he wants to do, where he wants to go, or who he wants be. Wandering off home after another fruitless session with the guidance counsellor, in his angsty adolescent funk an inattentive Tatara is easy pickings for a gang of bullies to shake him down for lunch money. Fortunately though a guardian angel on a moped swoops in to save him - only to pretty much abduct him and drag him bodily into a nearby building. It turns out that his rescuer is an instructor at a dance studio and they're scouting for new members.
Tatara isn't sure what to make of it all - he's initially reluctant to join, fearing that dancing would get him mocked for being a sissy, but despite his doubts he can't help but admit that the sheer boldness and confidence of these dancers is magnificent, and something that he entirely lacks but hopes he can discover (the girl he has a crush on is a member of the studio too, which helps). Tatara thus embarks on a journey into the wild world of dance sport, discovering that dancing can be quite intense and that far from its genteel, refined image there are tempestuous passions and furious rivalries raging in a cauldron that boils with a brew of blood, sweat and tears.
The first thing to make Welcome to the Ballroom interesting is its genre. Even though there are no teams or balls being thrown and kicked, Welcome to the Ballroom is fundamentally a sports manga. These sorts of stories have had a chequered history in the west - online streaming has made anime versions cheaper and more practical for distribution to small specialist audiences so we do have current shows men's netball manga Haikyuu! and Kuroko's Basketball available (with manga versions accompanying them on the shelves at the moment), but this has been a very recent phenomenon, and one that may be attributable to Free!-inspired fujoshi fan service more than sporting prowess. It's fair to say that anime and manga fans tend towards the geeky end of the spectrum with limited interest in sports, as DVD flops like Big Windup! attest, and because of this you need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Sports tropes just work in creating an appealing story of challenge and struggle - Mitsuru Adachi has cumulatively spent over three decades writing baseball mangas from Nine to Over Fence by way of Touch and Cross Game and more still for example, yet he's got no sign of slowing down - but if your audience is averse to the concept of sports in the first place then you need to deliver sports in another guise, which Welcome to the Ballroom achieves with its original subject matter. You get the same predictable but compelling training montages and bitter rivalries on the dancefloor as you'd expect on the pitch, but with your attention focused on the unfamiliar and uncommon topic means that you don't realise that it's happening.
Strictly Come Dancing has given ballroom dancing a much higher profile in the UK but the burst of popularity the show still enjoys comes from the novelty outside most people's experiences. Ballroom dancing is still seen as a classy, elite past-time and knowledge of these refined topics is a sure way to show sophistication, so reading Welcome to the Ballroom immediately reminded me of Drops of God, the wine-tasting manga which had a limited release in English from Vertical a few years ago and we greatly enjoyed. That manga had teaching you about the principles of oenology as one of its draws, but whereas Drops of God treated you with enough titbits of trivia to let you blag your way through a dinner party it has to said that you can't flick through Welcome to the Ballroom and then jump into a foxtrot. Some odd isolated bits of dancing jargon occasionally come through in the dialogue (such as explaining what a "3/4 beat" is) but this isn't a visual manual to walk you through the routines step-by-step.
What is most important to Welcome to the Ballroom is not so much practicality but personality, with little focus on technique but plenty on inspiring passion. Shonen hard-work-and-guts drive the heroes on, from Tatara's relentless repetitive training until the floor is slick with his vomit and burst blisters to an almost-physically visible incandescence of power fuming off of Tatara's classmate Hyodo as he finishes a session. A subtle but important detail is apparent on the very cover of this volume - a narrow bead of sweat is running down Tatara's face on the cover image but its straight thin continuous line cutting across his eye makes it look like the slash of a scar. It's war on the dancefloor! The cover also introduces you to the stand-out feature of Welcome to the Ballroom - the eyes. Characters throughout the book are stark with blazing, furious, intense, wild glares that puncture the page and punch you in the face. Big eyes are of course key to manga but it's rare to see that much raw emotion being forced through them - for these people, dancing is serious business. You can well understand how a vague directionless Tatara is hypnotised by their clarity and certainty.
The previous paragraph might make it seem that Welcome to the Ballroom is a gruelling and punishing read, Whiplash for dancers, but this isn't actually the case. When the dancers get in the zone it's as if a demon possesses them, but there's light-heartedness around these episodes as well which stops everything from getting too grim and severe. For instance, Tatara discovers his courage and proudly declares his determination to succeed before sweeping off - a few panels later his crush Shizuku is running after him, calling out that he left his uniform bag behind, and so nimbly puncturing what could just be puffed-up self-importance. Training scenes in the studio involve a lot of pratfalls, overexaggerated reactions and tomfoolery. The dance instructor Sengoku looks at first to be a chiselled Grecian statue, but he's fond of pulling childish faces to let his students know when they're getting a bit full of themselves. There are also a couple of changing-room malfunctions to get a cheap laugh. A fault of a lot of sports manga is that they can seem ridiculously over-exaggerated in treating everything like life-or-death peril - you're playing in a Little League game, not throwing the last pitch that'll win the World Series - and scenes like these are a tonic to help settle your stomach and allows Welcome to the Ballroom to enjoy the intense emotion of the dancing contests without getting too full of itself.
A sports manga stands on its ability to convincingly convey movement and Welcome to the Ballroom sets the bar high for itself too with the importance of correct posing as well as the elaborate costumes that the female dancers wear - the manga vaults this hurdle ably. It begins strongly with an accurate rendition of the real-life Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, which is a genuinely globally-famous competition venue in the dancing world (although Strictly Come Dancing uses the Tower Ballroom instead). It's also interesting to see the characters changed into their dance costumes. Anime characters frequently wear the same single outfit (plus a swimsuit for the fan service episode) for almost all the series, to the extent that it's a running joke amongst viewers that getting a haircut constitutes "character development" - so seeing the transformation effected when the characters pin up and slick back their hair and then gird their loins is quite striking. Hatching the page with vertical speed lines during the dance scenes also helps you to imagine it thrumming with noise and power and the floor vibrating with hammering footfalls to communicate the power of the session (and yeah, there may be just a little bit of Dragon Ball Z in there).
Welcome to the Ballroom is not the first Japanese treatment of dancing - even before we consider other dancing manga like Tetsugaku Letra! and Dance! Subaru there's of course the platoon drills of Idolmaster and Love Live - and again as a sports manga it won't hold too many plot twists. Despite that though its subject and mood are very different from anything English-speaking manga readers will have experienced and so I think the title change (the Japanese version has its own English subtitle of "Sweep Over The Dance Hall") is an appropriate one to invite you in to a new and intriguing world of skill and struggle.