Welcome to the Ballroom’s Stumbling Lead and Silent Follow

“The one to capture the crowd wins. The conditions to win are obvious: lead and follow, unity, ability to read the floor, configuration, and confidence and impact. He has them all now” (Sengoku Kaname, “Line of Dance”).

“Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels” (Bob Thaves).

Couples dancing is one of the few stages left where the importance of following is just as strong as ever. Leading and following are set roles that dancers take, with men typically the leads and women the follows. We see this norm displayed in this season’s show, Ballroom e Youkoso, to varying degrees.

Fujita Tatara is understandably starstruck by the people he sees and the moves they make. He finds a goal he never knew he needed in competitive ballroom dancing, and undertakes the long and painful journey to earning his place among giants. Yet even among the stars, he meets others who challenge his vision. Leads like Akagi Gaju treat their partners with disdain and their desires with objective possession. To Gaju, his sister Mako is a weakness holding him back; Shizuku, in turn, is sexy, capable, and desirable. He wants to swap the two and use Shizuku to fulfill his own needs. Gaju’s chauvinistic greed is among the ugliest displays we see on the dance floor, and an example I hope Tatara avoids for the sake of himself, his partner, and us viewers. We need a lead who dances with, not for, the follow.

Tatara’s adoration of fellow classmate and dancer Hanaoka Shizuku points him to a non-negotiable rule: to lead with unquestionable confidence and direction. There is nothing more disorienting than trying to follow the movements of someone who is unsure and tentative. If the lead is weak, then the actions of the follow will reflect that. If he leads against a dance floor’s line, you will likely bump into others. In a related vein, if you are a good follow, your lead should pick up on what works and what does not. If you spin off or step into an unintended direction, then incorrect signals must have been given to prompt that movement. I tend to find that beginner follows do well with firmer guidance, while more experienced dancers move well with only a hint of pressure.

I remember in my own dance class our instructor stressing the importance of following. The concept may seem dated today where feminists rightly fight for wage equality and reproductive rights. There are more role models than ever before of strong women who defy expectations and succeed in their goals. Yet here is our instructor telling us to fight the urge to “back lead.” Just like with back seat driving, back leading involves the follow directing the movements for the lead, either educationally or forcefully.

I was horrified. Me, with my strong sense of rhythm, having to go along with my husband’s mistimed steps? If the teacher instructed us to follow a set of moves and he led me through the wrong order, I would need to follow instead of correct him. It was maddening. He and I had our fair share of fights interspersed with our dancing, where I would point out the timing and mistakes. If this were in an office environment, I would be in the right to quickly address errors. On the dance floor, I was wrong.

The instance I let go of my own stubborn idea of “right,” our movements drastically improved (for anyone in a romantic relationship, dancing is a great way to check how you respond to conflict). Mistakes were no longer treated as problems, but as moments of learning and sometimes even inventive new moves to use in the future.

The problem with Welcome to the Ballroom is its balance of these ideas. Phrases Gaju and Sengoku say about women in this show immediately come off as repugnant. It’s one thing to lead, and quite another to stop seeing the follow as a person and instead as a puppet. You can argue that the anime condemns their viewpoint, but you can also point out all the places where it could be more explicit. Shizuka’s eyes often look dead; she sits silent and allows others to speak for her. We have no idea what she thinks or what she wants. When Gaju speaks of her, it sometimes sounds like an owner describing a well-trained dog. Because of this, I already prefer Mako. We hear her thoughts. She openly tells Tatara her feelings. She is written as a complex human rather than as a princess in a tower.

The intentions of the writing thus far are unclear. Are we supposed to laugh at Gaju’s sex-crazed expressions, or reprimand them? And as thoughtful as Tatara is about his partners, he still speaks for them in front of others rather than allowing them to voice their own responses. It’s one thing to claim support, and quite another to act it out. I’m waiting for the moment where both Shizuku and Mako step outside of their boxes and speak for themselves. They are both wonderful, responsive dancers who deserve just as much respect as the men in this show. Following is less about puppetry and much more about open communication and active interpretation.

“Line of Dance.” Welcome to the Ballroom, written by Takeuchi Tomo, directed by Itazu Yoshimi, Amazon Anime Strike, 13 Aug 2017.

7 thoughts on “Welcome to the Ballroom’s Stumbling Lead and Silent Follow

  1. I am not a dancer, but I’m enjoying the show. I kind of hope that it will have Tatara move on from the idea of doing anything with Shizuku, because he turns out to have great chemistry with Mako and they do great and fall in love and she stops being a brocon and they live happily ever after. It *probably* won’t, because these stories are nothing if not formulaic, and having that happen would get us away from the “unreachable goal” of dancing with Shizuku, who I find thoroughly uninteresting as a female lead in the show.

    I wonder from your observations if this is another instance of the intersectionality of Japanese traditional (public) gender roles with a western activity. Perhaps even that the bringing in the analogy of ‘marriage’ is supposed to be a way for the follow to exert some control over the pair, rather than them being a more general male-female interaction, which would be more significantly tilted towards the lead. This is mostly me shooting off the cuff in reaction to your post than a studied analysis, so I hope that noone takes it as an offensive commentary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know about a happily ever after romance with Mako, but I certainly do hope they end up choosing one another as dance partners for the foreseeable future. It would be great for Tatara to have that “peak” moment with Shizuku, only to realize that they’re not right for one another. I look forward to Shizuku opening up and actually saying what she wants.

      I don’t think your musing about western v. eastern gender roles offensive or completely unrelated. I actually took an opposite view of the “marriage” idea as some dated vision of the lead controlling the follow, particularly with the expression on Gaju’s face. I prefer your more modern interpretation 🙂


      • I was going from the concept of Japanese marriage that I’ve heard where even if the husband is publicly the “lead” of the household, when it comes to matters within the household, husbands are frequently considered unimportant and not even worthy of consultation. This is a culture where the husband has been expected for decades to go off to work for far more than 40 hours per week to provide for the household, and then when they are finally to a point where they can’t work any more and retire, they get called “sodaigomi” (giant useless trash) for being around the house

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh! That is really interesting, but makes complete sense now that I think about what I’ve seen in person and in live action shows. The husband in Samurai Gourmet seemed at a loss about what to do with retirement, and my sister’s father in Japan always deferred to his wife at home.


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