“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.