Dance Dance Fever

"JSB is here! Jason just saw him in the parking lot!"

In the toy-castle-styled arcade building just east of the water park at Mesa's sprawling Golfland-Sunsplash amusement center, the news is passed above the din of blaring video games and hollering teens as if the words themselves were a stage-diving rock star.

"JSB? You sure?"


Photos by Jeff Newton

Suddenly, the throng of sweaty teenaged boys that has been gathering all morning around the DDR Extreme machine snaps to attention. Vaulting up the six steps that separate the sunken lower pit of the arcade from the surrounding upper deck, they cut left at the snack bar and walk quickly -- but coolly -- past the lunch tables and Initial D Version 3 machines and fling open the thick wooden doors at the entrance to the arcade. Silhouetted by the blazing mid-July sun, the boys look left, then right, anxiously surveying the ramps leading up from the two parking lots encircling the coin-op kingdom.

Pinball wizards and joystick Jedis have always carried a certain celebrity cachet among the arcade-rat crowd. But expert players of Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR -- a game where players battle each other through dancing, "Beat It" style, on twin mini dance pads -- have become the arcade world's American Idols.

Pumped up by flashing klieg lights, the stage-like platform and constant whoops of encouragement from the recorded announcer ("Everybody's watching you!"), DDR is a game that makes performers of its players -- and true arcade stars of its champs.

While the game is deceptively easy to learn -- stomp on the correct arrow as its corresponding symbol scrolls to the top of the screen, and you're "Perfect!!", "Great!", "Good"; or, if you come too close to missing the beat entirely, "Boo!" -- it takes months of obsessive arcade residence to perfect the lightning-fast footwork required on some of the hardest songs. That is why, four years after the Japanese arcade game's introduction, we're just now beginning to see all these amazing young sneaker percussionists through the arcade windows by the mall food courts.

"More people are starting to play now, because the players they see are getting better," says 13-year-old David Benavidez, a.k.a. Zero, one of the youngest players in the Valley DDR community -- and also one of its best. "Back when I started playing, like, three summers ago, there weren't many good players to inspire you. Now we're starting to see what people can do with this game."

Today's big event at Mesa Golfland is, in fact, a tournament among all the top DDR players in the Southwest. And all the local heavy hitters, whose abbreviated nicknames appear on the top scorers list on every machine around Phoenix -- ZERO, TORL, POPE, MCVV, GHST -- are here.

Arizona, as it turns out, is a hotbed of high-scoring DDR players. "Arizona ranks better than any other state in the country at DDR," boasts Jaime Escalante, a proudly Hispanic 15-year-old whose first name is pronounced "HI-may."

"I think it's the heat," says fellow player Jason Krechs, 16. "There's nothing else to do here but hang out at the arcades."

Escalante, who shuttles between his mom's home in Phoenix and his dad's in Tucson, is debatably the best DDR player in the state. But no one in the game is a bigger star than John Sheridan, a.k.a. JSB, a 17-year-old quarter-Chinese kid from San Pedro, California, who's already appeared in a buzz-worthy indie film on the phenomenon, called The Dance Dance Documentary, and whose homemade video clips from previous tournaments, posted on player gathering sites like DDRFreak.com, have become legendary among the game's obsessive enthusiasts.

The news that JSB and his homeboys are planning on crashing Golfland's Southwest Showdown III sends shivers down the spines of the less confident players. "I'm kinda sorry I leaked it that JSB was coming," says Jason Salaz, the 19-year-old organizer of the competition and a recent transplant from New Mexico, where the first two showdowns were held. "Everybody's afraid to sign up for the tournament now."

Escalante, however, just wants to get this party started.

"You think JSB will show?" asks a friend.

"All I know is I'm tired of waiting for this stupid tournament to start," says Escalante, turning away from the castle door where kids are still popping in and out, checking on the king's arrival.

"That, and my nuts itch."

Dance Dance Revolution was first introduced in the U.S. as a machine to lure the chicks into the arcade.

Equipped with a digital jukebox filled with upbeat, ultra-hyper J-Pop songs and a screen flashing Day-Glo cartoon graphics and psychedelic patterns, the object of DDR was not to see how many bad guys you could shoot, but how well you could dance.

It worked, too, bringing more chicks -- or, at least, more younger sisters -- into the dark rooms once dominated by socially challenged males addicted to twiddling joysticks (surely, some Freudian scholars have done a few studies). Suddenly, the fraternal world of the arcade was invaded -- actually, brightened -- by blossoming little babes hopping about to speeded-up Olivia Newton-John and KC and the Sunshine Band tracks and hyperdriven Japanese disco with titles like "Boys," "Luv to Me" and "Stomp to My Beat."

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.

"It's a feeling I could imagine people get from being onstage, like in an actual performance," says Feuchtinger, an amiable longhair with a slight Shaggy beard who lists on his DDRFreak profile, under both hobbies and occupation, "smoking weed and playing DDR."

"You get into the music and the colors, you start concentrating on the arrows and all the epilepsy-inducing flashing lights, and for the five or six minutes that you're up on the stage, nothing else matters. You can tune out everything else. Pretty soon, as you get better, you start gathering a crowd around you. And before you know it, you start playing the game more for the group of people behind you, and the showmanship of it all."

Occasionally, the DDR crowd will catch a jealous stare from the Time Crisis 3 or The Grid players, whose arcade addictions of choice don't naturally attract the rapt audiences that assemble around the DDR machines.

"There's more of a scene around DDR than there is around any other arcade game," says Underwood. "You can't really have a big social gathering for, like, Tekken. I mean, yeah, you might have a bunch of friends who like to play it whenever they go to an arcade. But you don't have, like, 20 people who get in line and wait every Saturday at the same arcade, 'cause they know everyone's gonna be there.

"With DDR, it's always like that. Every single arcade has its own little group of regulars around the DDR machine."

Jack Feuchtinger is infamous for having once tried to organize the group of regulars at the Castles N' Coasters DDR machine into a kind of arcade-rat social club, which he named Team Iron Chef, after a love for the Japanese cooking show (DDR fans, worshipful of the Japanese arcade scene, generally profess a love for everything even remotely Asian).

"We all gathered at Castles N' Coasters every other Friday night, and then we'd stay up all night, on a diet of Pixie Stix and Mountain Dew," he says. "We'd go over to this friend's house, who had almost every version of DDR for the PlayStation 2 there was, and we'd just keep playing and gearing up for what we were gonna do the next morning. Then around 7 a.m., we'd pile into cars and head over to MGL for their Saturday morning video blowout."

The group, which had swelled to about 25 regulars at its peak, eventually disbanded, messily, when The Sketch's second-in-command put the moves on his girlfriend -- "the drama that you get in any large group." But Feuchtinger still regards the experiment as a totally noble effort.

"A lot of people really don't have a life outside of DDR," he says. "They go to the arcade and socialize, play a few rounds, then leave. And then you don't see them again until the next day -- when they do the same thing, over and over again."

When they do tear themselves away from the machine, most DDR devotees wile away their free time playing Stepmania, a PC clone of the game where players practice the complex steps to the songs -- with their fingers -- on the keyboard, or logging on to the forums at DDRFreak, DDRAmerica and others to post their playing achievements and talk about the game with other obsessives.

"It's funny," says Underwood, who goes by the name Ghost. "A lot of people don't even know each other's real names. We only know each other by our aliases. It's just 'cause we never really hang out with each other away from the DDR scene."

Feuchtinger is disappointed in his friend, whom he dragged to the table as an example of a DDR player with an active social life. "C'mon, what do you do when you're not playing DDR?" he presses Underwood.

Underwood pauses for a moment. "I'm actually big on finding a lot of friends who are bored, and going out and doing random stuff until we have to go home," he replies. "Like, we'll go to Target and walk around? Then we'll go to, like, a supermarket, and buy some cookies?"

With a nomadic schedule like this, it's not surprising that the trip to the arcade is almost always the highlight of the day for these teens, many of whom are stretching allowances to cover bus fares and arcade tokens.

Not that it's an empty life. Entire romances have started, flourished and flamed out in front of the DDR machine.

Michael "Rocket" Mahoney and Jennifer "Tifaheart" Seymore met at a DDR tournament held at ASU's Memorial Union building last year, and were pretty much inseparable all summer. A true odd couple -- Mahoney is a hefty teen with a naturally loud voice just a couple decibels below Gilbert Gottfried's, while Seymore is a low talker with a rail-thin Olive Oyl figure -- the two were united by their love of DDR, and their dates tended to revolve around tournaments and low-priced arcade blowouts.

Mahoney and Seymore finally broke up in August, around the time Mahoney showed up at a tournament held in the arcade at the Brunswick Mission Bell bowling alley in Glendale without her -- and won second place in the doubles contest paired with pal Will Hightower.

"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 facethejury.com," 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 jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.

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