Dance Dance Fever

Valley arcade rats find fame on the DDR Dance Pad

Escalante (center) holds the attention of the DDR faithful at MGL.
Escalante (center) holds the attention of the DDR faithful at MGL.

"We never played doubles that much anyway," Seymore later laments. "Michael's way better than me at DDR." The DDR machine at Castles N' Coasters has the biggest screen in town. Such minutia is easily confirmed in the DDR community -- on DDRFreaks, dedicated players in every city post their discoveries of new DDR machines, as well as which version of the game it is (there have been 10 so far, each retaining its own devotees -- "A lot of people prefer the songs on 4th Mix Plus," says Seymore. "More old-school."), how responsive the dance pads are and even how many tokens the machines take. On that biggest of screens, the words "TORL ALLN ALLN ALLN ALLN" now crawl up the list of top scorers -- and many of the people who used to be on that Top 5 list are pretty peeved. In his repeated efforts to top Torrell Richardson's score, 20-year-old Brunswick Lanes employee Allen Jones has knocked off every name on the list -- every name, that is, except Richardson's. "It's not like I'm trying to board hoard," says Jones, acknowledging the unwritten law of the arcade: Once you've gotten on the board, you're not supposed to go for Nonstop Single mode again unless you're absolutely sure you can beat number one. "But I can do it at the bowling alley. I think it's the speakers on this machine. I'm used to hearing more bass." A couple hours later, after Jones has left the arcade, Richardson himself shows up to play a little more DDR on his favorite machine. A quiet, unassuming black kid in a Hot Topic tee shirt emblazoned with an Atari Centipedes screen shot above the word "buggin'," Richardson fumbles with the arcade card in the machine's acceptor slot, then, discovering the pass has tapped out on credits, he walks calmly over to the revalue station to insert another dollar. With an audience of impatient teens hovering around the Extreme machine like hungry pigeons circling some unattended McDonald's fries, it's not long before another player advances on the card acceptor. "Wait," says his friend, stopping him. "I think that's Torrell." The makeshift crowd waits patiently while Richardson flips through the long list of oddly titled Japanese pop, Korean techno and Eurodance songs in the machine's CD-ROM drive, finally settling on three of the most challenging songs in the game, indicated by a complex series of graphics (the "Groove Radar") rating each song on speed, number of jumps, consistency of step patterns and frequency of "freeze arrows," where the player stands on one arrow while stomping on the others. There's canned audience applause at the end of each cleared stage, but today, Richardson doesn't need it. The other players, sitting cross-legged on the arcade's garish Vegas-style carpet, cheer as Richardson racks up an impressive number of "Perfects" and only a handful of "Greats," scoring three double-A's in a row (the ultimate score, a triple A, is awarded only when a player gets nothing but "Perfects" on every beat). For the "extra stage" his efforts win him, Richardson is dealt "Max 300," a ridiculously fast techno number clocked at 300 beats per minute with 555 steps to hit in one minute and 32 seconds. Holding on to the bar with his arms behind his back -- a no-no on most songs, but a human requirement on this monster -- Richardson waits a second for the rapid-fire music to begin and then immediately starts stomping along to the furious tribal drum beats like a straitjacketed Gene Krupa. Soon, the legs of his Ecko jeans are spinning so fast it appears he's about to rise like a helicopter and go bouncing off the high ceilings of the ornate Aladdin-style castle. At moments like this, even the tousled moms dragging their 6-year-old's birthday entourage out of the arcade doors have to stop and watch. This is what DDR's about. For the price of two tokens, sometimes three, any kid can rise above the anonymous din of the arcade and become a true star, a symbol of the perfection of 15: sharp, school-trained mind, linked by jaguar-sharp reflexes to a newly matured body. Almost nobody over the age of 25 even attempts the game. Adults only look on in awe -- and applaud. "People start showing you respect," says David Benavidez, who holds his own among the seniors and ASU guys in the arcade, who in turn regard him as the world's coolest 13-year-old. "When you do something that's so good, not a lot of other people can do it, people look up to you." For the players who get to stomp out their initials on the "Best Rankings" board, the local fame can provide a major ego boost. "A lot of people know me now," says Preston Adams, a minimum-wage Golfland employee (cool perk: He gets to test each game in the place) who goes by the name Pope. "I'll be walking in some random arcade, and people will come up to me and go, 'Are you the Pope?'" Sometimes that fame can be fleeting. Underwood recalls trying for an entire summer to beat Adams' score on the DDR Max 2 machine at CrackerJax, only to have his achievement mirror a Seinfeld episode. "Finally, one day I beat him, and I was freaking out, I was so freakin' happy," he says. "Then they sold the machine to a movie theater, and they cleared the high scores!" Other times, the sudden shower of attention can turn even the nicest arcade troll into an egotistical tyrant. "There was this one guy in California who was like the biggest freestyle god for about three years," says Jack Feuchtinger. "Then they tried to get him down here for a tournament, and he pops off this big list of demands: 'I want to be flown there on your money, I want to be put up in this hotel.'" Feuchtinger shakes his head and frowns. "I think he got a big head as soon as they put him on the Today show." It's nearing two o'clock at Mesa Golfland -- close to a full hour after Southwest Showdown III was set to begin -- and JSB has yet to arrive. Jason Salaz, who's known John Sheridan since the days before he became JSB -- "before everybody started idolizing him because he got a single-digit 'Great' on 'Legend of Max'" -- isn't surprised his tournament's star is running late. "There's a definite stigma between him and Jaime -- and practically everybody else," Salaz says. "Because JSB does come off as a major asshole, plain and simple. He always pulls off something to make somebody pissed off. Always." Fittingly, when JSB finally does arrive, he enters the noisy arcade like rock royalty. A cover-boy handsome teen (and he knows it: "I have a 9.5 rating on," he boasts in his online LiveJournal, referring to the current teen hotness-meter site), Sheridan strides in with flagrant bravado, trailed by his homies from San Pedro and, after them, the procession of Arizona fans who've gathered in the parking lot. He's barely old enough to drive, unemployed, and his only marketable skill seems to be that he's really, really good at a particular arcade game. Even so, John Sheridan has clearly got life pwned. "I'm 17, and I make a lot of money not working," says an unapologetically smug Sheridan, looking down on the like-aged kids in the pit, all trying their hardest to stomp out an impressive score on the DDR Extreme machine's screen and, occasionally, sneaking a peek over their shoulder at their idol. Sheridan has commandeered an Arizona road trip with his roommate and a few buddies to compete in today's showdown for the chance to win either a slightly damaged Keyboard Mania machine or a modified Japanese PlayStation 2 -- a step down from his previous wins (last November, at the Scottsdale Fiddlesticks, Sheridan scored his own DDR Extreme machine), but still, as he puts it, not a bad way to blow a weekend. "Last year, I was making about a thousand dollars a month, just going on weekends playing tournaments," he says. "And when you have no obligations, that's pretty decent. Tax-free." Sheridan has no fears about competing against Arizona's top players today. "Honestly?" he asks. "You have two good players here. Preston, the black guy," he says, pointing out Adams, dressed in a bright "Bleed Orange" tee shirt. "And then you have Jaime. Who's good, but he's just . . . rude. I don't like him. Nobody likes him. And he's ugly." Julie Isbell, a smart, outgoing 18-year-old, walks up and, gushing, tells Sheridan she'll be going up against him in the fourth round. "Good luck," he tells her. A few minutes later, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the platforms, waiting for their first song to begin, Sheridan will shake Isbell's confidence by asking, quite bluntly, if he can touch her boobs. "That was horrifying!" Isbell says of her match minutes after. "That's actually the worst I ever did on a first song. I don't know if he said that to psych me out or just to be weird." Isbell, whose close-up photo of her chest in a "Give peas a chance" tee shirt is the most-viewed picture on her personal Web page, says she had to rebuff his request twice. "I think he's not used to hearing people say, 'No.'" A few admirers -- "fanboys," Sheridan calls them -- approach their idol between matches, dishing compliments and fishing for playing tips. Salaz noted earlier that too much of this kind of fawning attention tends to make Sheridan angry, and that's already beginning to show. "The people can be annoying," he says. "But I always find a way to entertain myself." Earlier, to get the frightened players to sign up for the tournament, Sheridan stepped up to the Extreme machine and whipped through a deliberately low-scoring set -- then chuckled like an old pool shark, watching the relieved players rush to add their names to the list. Now, Sheridan just looks down on the crowd from his perch on the upper level of the arcade, waiting for the organizers to submit the next hapless victim for him to annihilate on the dance pad. Down around the DDR Extreme machine, meanwhile, a much sweeter scene plays out. An exhausted Michael Mahoney, his hair drenched in a look so bad he jokes, "You'd have to take 50 pictures of me to get one good one," flubs a valiant attempt to beat David Benavidez on Paranoia Max, and Torrell Richardson tells him, reassuringly, "You're still my hero!" It's a mini-Woodstock '69 on the arcade floor, populated by kids who've found a common way to feel good about themselves and have no problem high-fiving each other over achievements their parents, teachers and classmates probably know little about. "I've got one brother and two sisters, and they all think this is nerdy," says Richardson. "But my mom knows," he adds, smiling. "She's proud." For most of the tournament, Sheridan manages to completely avoid mixing with the group, biding his time with his San Pedro pals. At the night's end, to no one's surprise, Sheridan will win the tournament, going up against -- who else? -- Jaime Escalante. But for now, for Sheridan, it's just play and wait, play and wait. "Arcade people," he huffs, seemingly oblivious to the fact that outside of the arcade doors, his fame abruptly ends. "I've already been through that phase. I mean, the game's not really fun to play anymore, and I don't like all the people. But it's still easy money. That's why I keep doing it." Sheridan has no concrete plans for life after DDR, he says. But if he should decide to retire early and begin marketing himself as an icon, á la Tony Hawk, it seems he's already found a few more fanboys he can profit from. "What's cool is I can make money just autographing stuff and selling it on eBay," Sheridan says, smiling. "These shoes cost me $30 about a year ago," he says, pointing to some rather ordinary white running sneaks. "I'm going to sign them and sell them for about $150." In the arcade castles all across the U.S., clearly, it's great to be king. "It's just so easy," Sheridan smirks. E-mail, or call 602-229-8478.

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