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Beverly's Anrew Schild, 17, gives DDR a go earlier this week at the Salem Willows arcade. (Staff photo by Nicole Goodhue)
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Gotta dance (dance): Dance arcade craze takes hold on North Shore
By Emily Morris
Friday, July 9, 2004

It's Friday night at the mall, but these folks aren't shopping. This crowd of close to 20 people has gathered around two dancers. Some people in the crowd are dancers themselves. Others are Liberty Tree Mall visitors who have wandered in to watch the action.
     Within a few minutes, the two dancers are replaced with a new set that go head-to-head on the popular arcade machine Dance Dance Revolution. For the moment, the two players move in sync stomping and crossing their feet furiously to hit the flashing pink and blue arrows of the metal dance pad below them. "Dude, they do that like, all day," remarks one passerby.
     Until recently, the FYE arcade in the Danvers mall was just one of more than 15 locations in the greater Boston area where groups frequently develop around Dance Dance Revolution machines. The Liberty Tree game has been moved elsewhere for the summer, but North Shore enthusiasts can find machines at the Salem Willows arcade and the Big Dog sports bar in Lynnfield. From afar, those playing the game look to be part of some modern neon-lit version of an Irish jig. In reality, they are taking part in one of the most popular arcade crazes in the country.
      The game, usually referred to as DDR, requires players to follow dance moves shown on a screen by stepping on four corresponding arrow pads on a small square dance floor below them. By doing this successfully, they move through a number of levels that increase in speed and difficulty.
     If they succeed, the machine will praise them with exclamations like "I can see a dream in your dance! I can see tomorrow in your dance! We can call it our hope!" If they fail, the machine voice may ask if they ate breakfast, or say, "Well, I was almost dazzled."
     There is a secret to the success for some players. Konami Corporation of Japan makes a home version of the game for Sony PlayStation, Sega Dreamcast and Xbox - dance pad included - so players can practice their steps before performing in public. Last Dec. 2, Konami announced that sales of the home version have reached 6.5 million units worldwide, including one million sold stateside. DDR was first released as an arcade game in Japan in the fall of 1998. The game reached U.S. arcades in 2001, followed later that year by the home version.
     The music played during DDR is also a hit. Each edition of the game (it is upgraded often) has an accompanying CD of music that is available for sale.
     Paul Hartling, 17, who has played DDR in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida, thinks many DDR fans start playing because of the music. "This is the way everybody started listening to a new kind of music," says Hartling. He describes the music as somewhat different than techno and trance, two popular types of dance music.
     And it's not just for kids. "I've got most existing DDR files downloaded to my IPod and I play them at the gym," says Manchester by the Sea's Elizabeth Solomon, 31, a Latin teacher at St. John's Prep. "I've never played the game, but the music is great to run to."
     Be that as it may, DDR arcade machines are still a large source of revenue for the game. Matthew Greer, former district manager for the FYE arcade in Danvers, says DDR was the most popular video game at that location.
     "I probably have about 150 people that come in just for the DDR," says Greer. He also estimates that another 150 new players will attempt the game each week. "Some of those will become regular players," he says, "some fail miserably."
     According to FYE, the DDR machine was removed in June to be transferred to a beachside location for the summer, where it may see even higher-volume usage. As of this week, it was unclear if a DDR machine would return to FYE.
     Players also use the numerous Internet sites devoted to DDR to find information on the game. Two of the most popular Web sites are ddrnation.com and ddrfreak.com. Free of charge, thousands of players log on daily to use the DDR Freak forums to set up competitions, meet other players or simply discuss anything from their most embarrassing DDR moment (usually falling off the machine) to the largest crowd gathered around to watch (one forum-member claims over 300 spectators gathered at a machine at an outdoor arcade in Myrtle Beach, S.C.).
     Cheek-to-cheek ... not exactly
     Christopher Guen, 22, a 2002 alumnus of Harvard University, spends part of his time as an administrator for ddrfreak.com. Guen is a three-year DDR aficionado who plays regularly throughout New England from Nashua, New Hampshire to Newport, Rhode Island, and has even ventured to Las Vegas and California to play.
     Guen reckons ddrfreak.com plays a similar role for players both locally and nationally. Guen said the Web site provides "a central location for DDR information." This includes information about the game, upcoming releases, step charts to help them improve and a list of all DDR locations in the U.S. and worldwide so players can experience the revolution even while traveling.
     Guen, like many other players, prefers the arcade version. "I don't play the home versions. I just never got accustomed to using the home pads," says Guen. "They try to replicate the arcade feel and experience, but it just doesn't feel right to me."
     Whether played at home or in the arcade, success at the game is based mostly on stepping on the arrows at the proper time. Once they've mastered that basic eye-foot coordination, players have a lot of leeway to add their own style. Some players are so familiar with the steps that they can turn away from the machine and face the crowd as they dance. The top of the red metal bar that stands at the back of the dance floor of the Liberty Tree machine had faded to white from players leaning on it for support during various tricks or simply from fatigue.
     Typically, two players compete against each other on side-by-side machines. Each arcade has its own policy for how the players take turns. At the FYE arcade in the Liberty Tree Mall, players lined their quarters up on a ledge by the machine. On weekend evenings, when dozens of players show up to play DDR, there is often confusion as to what quarters belong to whom in line. To avoid this, some players have created their own markers.
     Even when playing against each other, each player usually pays for his own game. The game can cost anywhere from 50 cents to $2 for a turn, which can include anywhere from two to five songs. In Danvers, a player got 3 songs for a $1.
     Gino Mortillaro, 16, discovered DDR while downloading songs. Since DDR songs are also available on CD, inevitably they are available for download as well. Mortillaro enjoyed the songs and searched the internet for "DDR" to seek the origins of the music. He found ddrfreak.com, realized it was a game and started talking to people who played in Danvers.
     Since then, Mortillaro has joined the ranks of the DDR fanatics. He tried to come to the FYE to play at least once a week and owns the home version as well. At home, Mortillaro typically spends an hour and half playing per session. If he is at the arcade, he may spend up to three hours, especially if it is an off evening, like a Wednesday, when he can get more practice.
     At the FYE arcade on a recent Friday night, Mortillaro is dressed in a T-shirt, black pants with two red stripes down the leg, red suspenders and close to 20 jelly bracelets of various neon hues on each wrist. He is also wearing Cat in the Hat stuffed white gloves, red-and white-striped hat and red stuffed bowtie.
     "You see a lot of people try to do freestyle. Knee drops, jump over the bar, they try to look cool," says Mortillaro. "I come in costume. That's my deal."
     Mortillaro takes his turn against another player standing nearby. It is clear Mortillaro has practiced often, but he still occasionally misses a step or his foot lands outside the designated arrow pad. During his turn of three songs, Mortillaro drops out at various points during each song to catch his breath. Each time he drops out, one of the 10 players nearby steps in to finish his round for him. His competitor remains on the stand through all three songs, with the long straps on the cargo pockets of his navy shorts flying around as he carefully executes the steps, only occasionally reaching back with his arms to grab the pole behind him for support.
     A middle-aged woman stops at the game as she walks through the arcade. As someone nearby explains the game to her, she begins to watch Mortillaro's match, glancing between the screen and the changing faces of the dancers as they struggle to complete the level. By the end of the second song, she's had enough.
     None of the players nearby seem bothered by other players finishing someone's turn if that person is unable to do so, as in the case of Mortillaro. It seems to be standard protocol. While the game gives players a chance to be creative with their style, it also stirs a sense of community among the players.
     A bond is born
     Mortillaro is just one of many players who say they have a group of friends they met through DDR. Hartling, an Everett native, says he has met nearly all of his current friends through DDR. Hartling had his PlayStation modified so it could read Japanese games, and started playing the game four years ago when the home version was first released in Japan. Hartling used to travel with a friend to Danvers to play at the arcade, but more often, he plays DDR at the Good Times arcade in Somerville because he can take a bus there from his home.
     One reason DDR enjoys such broad popularity is because it's a hit with parents. His associated interest in the music is just one of the reasons Mortillaro's mom is pleased about his participation in the game. "She thinks it's really good, cause it's really good exercise, and it keeps me having a good beat, a good flowing motion, stuff like that," he says.
     Indeed, exercise is a reason parents are pleased about the game. Unlike most video games, which don't involve physical activity, DDR has built a reputation as a healthy pastime. One school in California has added DDR machines to its physical education program, according to an article in the Tampa Tribune. Many teenagers as well as adults who play the game regularly have lost weight. A recent Konami press release notes the home version even has a "Workout Mode" that allows players to track how many calories they're burning as they play.
     "It's so drastically different from most other video games," writes Matt Couture on ddrfreak.com. "It was one of the first I saw that actually made you move around and do something besides just standing still and pressing buttons."
     Couture, 19, is a Boston University sophomore and usually gets his DDR fix at the M.I.T. Student Center in Cambridge.
     "The only reason (my mother) lets me come here is it keeps you off drugs, it keeps you off the street, it keeps you off everything," says Hartling.
     Unlike many other video games, DDR appeals to both boys and girls of different ages. The crowd of players at any location typically spans at least one generation in age and includes at least two or three females.
     "DDR caters to a fairly diverse group of people - moreso than other video games, at least," says ddrfreak.com's Guen. "The only thing people really have in common is their love for the game."
     The game also pulls in general video game fans as well as fans of Japanese culture.
     "Some parents of regular players have been known to stop by as well," says Guen. "It's an addictive game; so once someone gets hooked, their friends and family may get curious and try it out themselves. Although the players are predominantly male, there are probably more hardcore female players than in most other genres of gaming."
     Some players simply enjoy DDR at the arcade because it gives them a chance to perform.
     "I enjoy 'showing off' for people who aren't familiar with the game as well," says Couture in a posting on ddrfreak.com.
     Many of the players feed off the attention they get from the crowd.
      DDR is part of a family of interactive music games called Bemani. Other games include BeatMania, which simulates disc jockeying, and DrumMania, which imitates playing drums.
     "Usually, if someone plays one of them, they'll have at least a casual interest in all of the others," says Guen.
     Along with its announcement of the growing sales of DDR's home version, Konami also announced the release of Karaoke Revolution for PlayStation 2. Time magazine named Karaoke Revolution the No. 1 of 2003, calling it "easily the most original and fun game of the year."
     Perhaps in the future it will be the crooning voices of the Karaoke Revolution that pulls in passing crowds. For now, it's tapping, pumping, sweat-drenched feet.
     Emily Morris is a freelance writer.

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