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Life


Beat feet
Dance Dance Revolution sparks new moves among action-arcade crowd


By ELIZABETH MANNING
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 11, 2003)

adn.com story photo
Teda Chanthavisouk, 12, left, and Victor Phothiboupha, 13, do technical dancing on the Dance Dance Revolution Extreme at the Space Station. Players try to synchronize dance moves with directions on a video screen. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)


adn.com story photo
Daryl Chanthavisouk, 16, freestyle dances on Dance Dance Revolution, a rhythm-action arcade game from Japan. The game has gained a cult following in Anchorage. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)


adn.com story photo
J.C. Lomboy, 16, right, and Luis Quintero, 18, freestyle dance, in which the goal is to look good, have fun and still hit the arrows on the dance platform on cue. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)


Click on photo to enlarge
Beau Kitchpanich and his little brother, Banky, were dancing so fast their feet blurred. Then Banky bailed, exhausted. Midsong, he leaped off the platform and another brother, Bomby, hopped on.

All the while, the trio barely skipped a beat as a dozen or so fans huddled around the blinking machine at the Space Station Arcade in Spenard. This is Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR, a rhythm-action arcade game from Japan that is rapidly gaining popularity in Anchorage. The song blaring from the speakers was "Paranoia Survivor Max," one of the toughest to master.

In the world of DDR, the Kitchpanich kids were practicing a form of the game called technical dancing. Their score depended on how well they synchronized dance moves with directions on a video screen.

The concept is simple: Players watch directional arrows scroll up the screen and then hit corresponding arrows on the dance platform (up, down, left, right) at precisely the right moment with their feet.

Sounds basic, but not when arrows fly across the screen as fast as bullets.

The Kitchpanich boys survived "Paranoia Survivor" but that was about all you could say. No glory there.

Then it was time to let loose -- time for freestyling.

Banky and Beau jumped back onto the pad and started clowning to a pop song, Brilliant 2U. Because they know the song by heart, they turned away from the video screen and performed for the crowd.

In freestyle, the goal is to look good, have fun and still hit the arrows on cue. As the Kitchpanich boys swung and spun in unison, jumped up, dropped to their knees and slapped the dance pad with their hands, other DDR players in the crowd began to smile. The boys were putting on a good show.

BOY BEAT

Dancing is not really what you expect teenage boys to do at a video arcade. There are no machine guns, no explosions, no blood and guts on the screen. Just a steady beat, and on the screen during some songs, teenaged girls dancing or pink hearts popping.

But ask any of these kids what they like about DDR, and most say they are drawn in by the challenge. In that way, it is like other video games.

There is almost always a next level to reach, always some harder song to master, and then new versions of the game released by the company keep it interesting.

Nikki Cratty, 13, one of Anchorage's dedicated players, said she first learned about DDR while surfing the Web a couple of years ago. Then she saw someone playing the game Outside on vacation and decided to try it. She kept failing but liked it and wanted to figure it out. Now she's hooked. She estimates she plays between two and eight hours a week.

"I'm still not sure what the heck it is I like about it," she said. "I guess it's the challenge of getting better."

These days, Cratty is a top player in Anchorage. During a recent DDR tournament at Space Station, arcade manager Jeff Collins marveled at how she hit every arrow precisely at the right time, even on the hardest level.

"This girl's a technician," Collins said. "She just doesn't miss a beat."

Other kids said they like that DDR engages more than just hand-eye coordination, like other video games.

"You have to use your whole body to play it," said Banky Kitchpanich, 11.

That aspect of DDR has often made headlines. In other cities, some schools even use the machines in physical education classes to get kids interested in exercising.

Jeff Stewart, who at 21 is one of the older players, testifies that DDR helped him lose weight, better even than a Subway diet. Stewart, who goes by the pseudonym "Losmixjapan" in DDR chat rooms on the Internet, said he dropped 50 pounds in five months of playing. He said he used to weigh about 310 and is now down to about 260 pounds.

COMMUNITY OF PLAYERS

Another reason kids like DDR is the community that has formed in Anchorage arcades.

Luis Quintero, 18, is one of the best DDR players in town. He likes that the DDR scene here is so diverse, which he said doesn't appear to be the case in other cities he has visited. In Anchorage, the game hooks athletes, computer types as well as good dancers, just about anyone, really. The players also come from a mix of racial backgrounds.

The Kitchpanich kids are Thai and Laotian, and their cousins, the Chanthavisouks, are Laotian and Chinese. Other DDR fanatics are Filipino, Japanese, of Latin American descent or Caucasian.

In Anchorage, about a dozen kids play regularly and about another dozen come to the arcades less frequently. Some communicate via a DDR chat room for the Northwest and Alaska on the http://www.ddrfreak.com/ Web site. Players use Web names like Indigo Vision, Shinobisama and CoolQuatre and sometimes exchange messages setting up meeting times to go to the arcades and play. Bomby Kitchpanich, a well-known Web designer, also has a local Web page with live video images at ddr-ak.com.

The scene in the arcades is fun, too. At times, kids are serious as they watch someone tackle a particularly hard song. But there's a lot of goofing that happens, too. The music ranges from rap, rock and R&B to techno and pop. Sometimes, those watching will clap along as two people are up on the platform, dancing. Other times, players strike poses, hop in the air or spin on the pad.

EXTREME ARRIVES

DDR has been popular in bigger cities for years. Anchorage got its first game about three years ago, but interest quickly waned when people got tired of that version, players say.

In the last year, as arcades around town bought newer versions right as they were released, interest spiked again. Last fall, two movie theaters got the new DDR game, Max2. Then H2Oasis got the newest and hottest version, DDR Extreme. Now that version is also at Space Station and Century 16 Theatres. Fireweed Theatre has a Max2 game and the cheapest price at 50 cents for three songs. Costs around town range from 50 cents to $1 depending on the arcade and the number of songs.

As the games have been upgraded, more and more kids in Anchorage are getting into the groove.

"It's just starting to take off up here now," Quintero said.

DDR comes from a Japanese company, Konami, which also makes other music-oriented rhythm-action games. Collectively, they are called Bemani games.

Summer tournaments at Space Station have helped gather the DDR tribe. The arcade has offered three tournaments so far, which have been technical rather than freestyle competitions.

Collins, the manager of Space Station, said he advertised a freestyle competition a week ago on Monday but just two kids signed up because many kids' summer work schedules conflicted. In freestyle competitions, players can earn points for hip-hop and break dancing moves and style in addition to their regular game scores based on hitting the right arrows on cue.

Because of the low turnout, Collins let everyone goof around that night -- for free. That was the night Beau, 18, Bomby, 17, and Banky, 11, practiced their dance moves. But then they had to leave early to help their parents at their family's restaurant, Thai Kitchen in East Anchorage.

After the Thai kids left, the night kind of fizzled.

'FLIP KIDS'

Learning to play DDR takes patience. Cratty said most anyone with persistence can do it. Just accept a couple of weeks of flailing around and repeating songs before moving on. Competitors are scored on alphabetical grades. The best is AAA if you make a "perfect" on every arrow, meaning you hit the game platform at precisely the right time; to "pass" a song, you must at least earn a D.

The songs are ranked according to difficulty. "Light" is beginner, "standard" is intermediate and "heavy" is advanced. Beyond that, the songs are all rated from 1 foot to 10 feet, with the lower numbers being the easier.

Many Anchorage kids have excelled at different parts of the game. Cratty and Quintero, for example, are best known for their technical skills, though Quintero throws in freestyle tricks from time to time. Because he's tall and lanky, he can easily lift his leg over the holding bar behind the dance stage.

J.C. Lomboy, his cousin, R.C. and R.C's brother, Alex, are known as the "flip kids" for their freestyle skills. The Kitchpanich kids and their cousins excel at that too, but mostly with choreographed routines. Lomboy and his cousins make up almost all their moves on the spot.

That's makes them special, says Quintero and others. They could compete nationally and do well, even in big DDR scenes like Seattle's.

"The stuff they come up with is really impressive," Quintero said.

Clowning around during one of the recent tournaments, J.C. Lomboy, 16, pulled off a series of impressive break dancing moves, including spins and hand twists. In one particularly audacious move, he shimmied down and hit the correct arrow on the dance platform with his rear end.

Lomboy and his cousins are adept at getting the crowd fired up. Some kids clap along when they play, and occasionally, there's an audible gasp from the crowd when dancers pull off a particularly daring stunt.

Quintero and Bomby are good at dancing on both pads at once, known in DDR-speak as a "double" play. Gliding seamlessly from pad to pad, they never trip up.

Joseph Felix, a computer technician at Elmendorf Air Force Base, does well on fast songs. Up on the dance platform, he looks like a modern-day Fred Astaire, furiously tapping away in his baggy jeans. When his legs start flying, strangers gather.

Like other DDR fanatics, Felix said he can't really explain the game's draw. It's just fun, he said.

"Once you get good at it," he said, wiping his brow, "it's really addictive."

Daily News reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at emanning@adn.com or 257-4323.


SPACE STATION ARCADE will hold its next technical DDR tournament at 4 p.m. July 22.




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