Dance Dance Fever

Valley arcade rats find fame on the DDR Dance Pad

"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.

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

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Photos by Jeff Newton

"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!"

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