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?"

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.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern