Should You Watch Welcome to the Ballroom?

Episode 1 Summer Anime 2017 Review
welcome to the ballroom
Welcome to the Ballroom from Production IG. (c) Production IG

Welcome to the Ballroom has a lot of hype. Featuring the talent of animators who’ve worked on Haikyuu , which is “The Sports Anime To End All Sports Anime” if you ask any of its one billion fans, and straight outta Production I.G., which works with Wit Studio on Attack on Titan, Welcome to the Ballroom premiered exclusively  on Twitch a day before its global premiere. It’s been compared to Yuri on Ice for its subject matter, what some might call the shared listlessness of its leads, and its animation prowess. Before we get started, let me make one thing very clear:

Welcome to the Ballroom is a good show. It is no Yuri on Ice. Yuri on Ice is not merely good and fun, it is revolutionary because it revolves around an explicitly romantic relationship between two men without getting stuck in the boys’ love genre gulag. Welcome to the Ballroom does not do this, and judging by its ending theme we will in fact be treated to a parade of doe-eyed heterosexuality. This is completely fine and doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the show at all, but Welcome to the Ballroom is not and will never be Yuri on Ice. The opening theme is no “History Makers” and the art style is quite distinct. I could go on, but let’s just ex that false equivalence from the conversation and move on.

As far as art style goes, I’m torn. Welcome to the Ballroom ’s animation is kinetic and stylized in a way very reminiscent of Haikyuu , an unusual move for ballroom dance, which is more notable for its stateliness and grace, not its frenetic energy. The mishmash of styles does ballroom dance a favor, infusing it with larger-than-life drama and vigor.

But the character designs throw me. Everyone is spindly and long-limbed with spiky-lashed, positively enormous eyes. Like Escaflowne ’s art style (those noses took some real getting used to for me), this may grow on me, but I do find it jarring. It has its beauty and I may just need to get used to it.

Welcome to the Ballroom ’s basic plot is classic sports anime: young naïf searching for direction finds it in a hobby that consumes his life; young naïf works his butt off for the sake of the competition/tournament, forming friends and rivalries along the way; young naïf somehow triumphs, either personally or professionally, sometimes both. The ballroom dancing skin over this well-worn trope might distract at first, but can’t disguise how old this story is.

But old doesn’t mean stale. We love seeing the underdog work hard, come up in the ranks, overcome obstacles and eventually triumph. Those tropes are successful for a reason, but it does mean I’m not expecting surprises out of Welcome to the Ballroom . I know where we’re going here.

Anyway, our underdog is a dreamy young naïf named Fujita with the biggest doe eyes you’ve ever seen, who has no idea what he’s doing in the future. He meets a charismatic, masculine fellow named Sengoku, who drags him into a newly-opened dance studio. Sengoku needs students and Fujita needs purpose – the pretty girl from school who’s also a student here is a bonus.

At home, Fujita watches a ballroom dance competition DVD that blows his little mind wide open. He is mesmerized, especially by Sengoku, who is an ideal of masculine confidence, strength and grace. The next day, before he can control the words pouring out of his mouth, he fanboys over Sengoku, begs Sengoku and his partner to take him on and promises he’ll clean and work a part-time job later if they’ll only accept him as a student right now. Fujita doesn’t just want to do little once-a-month classes with old ladies; he wants to be the next Sengoku. Learning how to dance will give him that ineffable something he needs to change his life. Sengoku’s all over it and they begin.

The first thing Sengoku teaches Fujita is a boring-ass move called The Box. It turns out he specifically chose this boring-ass move because he was offended at Fujita’s presumption in wanting to be just like him, because it takes a lot of work to become a champion and a pro at Sengoku’s level. I find this turn in character ridiculous, since Sengoku has been nothing but excited for Fujita to join the dance studio up til then. Why wouldn’t he be delighted that their new young student has high ambitions?

Anyway, Fujita doesn’t quit. In fact, he stays up all night practicing the same boring-ass move with no guidance from Sengoku. By the morning, Fujita’s feet are raw, his shoes are broken and the floor is covered in sweat, but Fujita didn’t even realize he was dancing the night away.

via GIPHY

The pretty girl who’d been so dismissive of him earlier praises his swing, making him blush.

The episode closes with Fujita saying that if only he really loved just one thing, he could change. Clearly ballroom dance will be the thing he loves, the thing that changes him into a young man with confidence, poise and a direction for his future.

I look forward to seeing the rest of the couples who will populate the studio, which we get a charming first look at in the closing credits. The animation and art style are distinct enough to warrant attention, and Fujita is inoffensive and earnest, a young man we can root for. I’m grateful that Fujita doesn’t have any prodigy-level abilities either because we can really see him climb up the ladder through diligence and hard work rather than a magic talent wand. I need to see more of Sengoku as a teacher, because he sucked at it this episode, but he’s a magnetic character. I’d also like to see more dance animations to make up my mind on its quality (I’m shocked that the DVD moment wasn’t used as an animation showcase and am still waiting for an animation "wow" moment).

There is an interesting commentary on masculinity in this first episode that may take the whole series to unpack. Sengoku notes how unusual it is for young men to go into ballroom dance, and everything about Sengoku’s design and personality seems aggressively masculine in compensation, but Fujita’s listlessness is explicitly not gendered, as his lack of resolution for the future is echoed in the pretty female student as well. Will ballroom dance make Fujita more manly, enable him with the confidence to hold a woman without shaking and let him carry himself with enough strength that bullies will never pick him as a target again? The magic 8-ball says yeah, probably.   

Welcome to the Ballroom streams on Amazon’s Anime Strike every Friday. Will it be a part of your queue for the season? Let us know in the comments section below.

 

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