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Dance Dance Revolution

February 25, 2008

Shortly after a luminous, flame-tressed Tilda Swinton accepted her "Best Supporting Actress" Award at the Oscars for what can only be described as a banal performance in a forgettable film (Michael Clayton), things at last night's Academy Awards party finally took an interesting turn when our hosts, Lisa and Jon, introduced the assembled group to Dance Dance Revolution.

I had heard of "DDR" before but never had a clue what it was. I originally thought it was a reference to pre-Berlin Wall East Germany. When I realized that the acronym stood for something about as different from "Deutsche Demokratische Republik" as it's possible to get, I thought it was something to do with techno DJs and turntables. How wrong I was.

DDR, an interactive dance computer game, has been around for a decade. It was invented in Japan but its popularity soon spread to Europe and the U.S. Somehow though, its grip on culture had passed me by -- until last night that is.

At first, I thought the game was completely inane and I wouldn't deign to try it. I watched, incredulous, as three grown men in Academy Awards-appropriate tuxedos made the floor of Lisa and Jon's house shake as they stomped about in bare feet on the game's plastic mats to the sounds of tinny, sped-up, late 20th century pop songs like Ace of Base's "I Saw the Sign" and Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me". Meanwhile, animated dancers in teeny miniskirts and huge afros shimmied about before our eyes on the TV (which for the purpose of the game functioned as a computer console) to the same songs.

For anyone who's interested in a detailed account of the history of DDR and how it works, Wikipedia has a long entry on the subject. Basically, though, when the dancer stomps his feet on one of four arrows (pointing up, down, left and right) on the mat at the same time as an arrow facing a particular direction shows up on the screen, he wins points. The aim is to get a perfect match between the arrows on screen and where the dancer puts his feet on the mat. Dancers compete against each other at the same time while standing on separate mats to see who can best copy the arrows. The game can played to a very high level, with competitors also coordinating arm and hand movements with a set of on-screen instructions as well as their feet. We were only playing with feet though. The upper body part of the game was switched off. Our hosts said hands are too challenging.

To anyone with an ounce of rhythm and coordination in their bodies who's never encountered DDR before and is watching a bunch of half-drunk men in their thirties stumble their way through the "basic" and "beginner" modes of the game, DDR looks less like a dance revolution than like a bunch of people collectively trying to put out a succession of small fires with their feet.

But despite my snooty attitude, I eventually found myself hooked. As a dancer, I started off wanting to imitate the animated dancers on screen rather than following the arrows. For a while, I jiggled about behind the "legitimate" players hoofing it on their mats, trying to coordinate my steps with those on screen. I got some fairly successful results, particularly in the slightly slower songs (e.g. "Blue Monday"). Eventually I decided to give the arrows a go and to my surprise, I found myself sort of entranced by the activity of stomping my feet in time to the music and the visual cues. The activity was harder than it looked. And I got very sweaty.

Meanwhile, the Oscars played on, on some other channel, unwatched by us. We looked ridiculous, but no more ridiculous, I think, than the Hollywood people over in L.A.

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