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The boys liked it, too. Eventually, they began stepping out on the mini dance floors themselves. First, alongside the girls: If they were too chicken to go to the school dances, then rhythmically stomping arrows on a metal dance pad next to a cute honey doing the same steps was the next best thing. Then, hooked by the challenge of the scoring system and the sheer dumb fun of punching controller buttons with their feet, the boys started battling their friends on the dual dance pads.
Now, the DDR machines at the arcades, bowling alleys and amusement parks are overrun with big, hefty dudes stomping along to fruity remixed Geri Halliwell and Duran Duran beats with the intensity of the Hulk squashing bugs on the sidewalk -- and often, all the grace.
"It is kind of funny to watch sometimes," admits Ashlie Perales, 17, who works behind the counter at Scottsdale's Fiddlesticks arcade, which features two latest-model DDR machines, back-to-back. "Some of the songs, particularly from the first mixes of the game, are pretty girlie."
Jason Salaz, who, besides moderating the Southwest discussion forums on DDRFreak, also works on the Web site for Orange Lounge Radio, a Live360 Internet radio station completely dedicated to the music of DDR and other beat-related games from the Bemani division of Komani of Japan, says the one-and-a-half-minute dance tunes on the games' soundtracks become your favorite jams, regardless of what you listened to before.
"There's this guy here who goes by the nickname Diamondback, who makes himself out to be this dark, death metal, speed metal person," Salaz says. "But the funny thing is, he knows all the songs in Para Para Paradise, which is considered to be the ultimate girlie Bemani game. You see him at MGL [player shorthand for Mesa Golfland], and he's this goth, death metal head doing all these girlie arm routines."
Salaz points out that DDR music has gotten more macho in recent years, as boys have started to push the little girls out of the way to get on the dance pads. But the boost in testosterone around the machine can sometimes turn even the cutest songs ugly.
At a smaller tournament held at Golfland one month prior to the Southwest Showdown, arcade regular Dorion Whitlock is goofing around with friends in front of the DDR Extreme machine when he decides to toss a piece of ice from a soda cup at Escalante, with whom Whitlock shares a friendly rivalry. Unfortunately, the cube hits a friend of Escalante's, who's never met Whitlock before.
While a peppy J-Pop tune plays through the machine's booming, side-mounted speakers, Whitlock and the stranger get into a pushing contest that results in Whitlock's tripping over the arcade pad and getting a bloody nose on the support bar dancers sometimes hold onto to speed up the footwork. The confrontation finally erupts into a full-out wrestling match on the floor, right between the Extreme machine and the Star Trek Voyagers game.
Arcade security cops are quickly brought in to quell the hooligan antics, and Whitlock, a 27-year-old Internet sales director for Lund Cadillac -- and also one of the oldest serious DDR players in town -- is ejected from the arcade for the rest of the night.
"That kind of thing never happens when girls get together to play," says Perales, laughing, a few moments after the crowd clears. "When girls get together, we just play for fun. Guys get more competitive."
Jonathan Underwood grabs a table with some friends at Golfland while waiting for the Southwest Showdown to begin -- which, at the moment, seems to hinge on JSB's arrival -- and immediately, the talk turns to DDR.
"DDR was actually a big turning point in my life," says Underwood, a 6-foot-tall 17-year-old with short blond hair and the kind of earnest surfer-dude voice that ends every sentence as if it's a question. "Because, like, before DDR? I had my best friend, James? But then I really didn't hang out with anyone else.
"Then I started hanging out at CrackerJax on the weekends, playing DDR, and I started making a lot of friends doing that. And I guess, just having other people to hang out with, I started developing an outgoing personality. And that's just carried over to school and social life and everything."
Like Tony Manero's turf in Saturday Night Fever, the mini dance floor in front of the DDR machine is the one place -- sometimes the only place -- where these former shut-in game geeks really shine.
"I always kind of kept in the corner, on the few occasions I did go somewhere," says Will Hightower, 16, uncomfortably adjusting to his first pair of glasses. "But DDR is a social game, so there's no way you can really play it without coming out of your shell."
Jack Feuchtinger, a 21-year-old fixture on the DDR scene who goes by the name The Sketch, says his social life used to revolve around playing Magic: The Gathering with a few fellow card-collecting nerds at the Metrocenter food court. But that was before he stepped out on the DDR machine at the mall's Cyberstation arcade and discovered the rapture of the spotlight.