Once upon a time, dance in gym class meant holding the clammy hand of a classmate, while scratchy square-dance records called out commands to “promenade” and “do-si-do.” These days, flashing arrows on a screen tell dancers where to put their feet, in time to a beat that’s more hip hop than hoedown—and kids can’t get enough of it.

We’re referring, of course, to “Dance Dance Revolution,” a video game that has leaped from Japanese arcades to physical education classes in public schools across the United States. Played with a dance pad that senses movement as players imitate steps shown onscreen, DDR challenges contenders to keep in sync with the music’s rhythm, while rating their performances with a letter and numerical score.

Children aren’t the only ones excited about DDR. Health experts and P.E. teachers are touting the high-energy game’s potential to help tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, noting that even sedentary kids who spurn other kinds of exercise seem to get hooked on it. It’s commonly referred to as a “gateway activity” that educators can use to steer students toward healthier lifestyles.

What DDR means for dance educators is up for debate, however, since despite its name, it has little to do with the artform. In any case, with more and more districts adopting it, DDR seems to be here to stay. Read on as we explore the story behind its success and look at its capabilities as a teaching tool.

From Japanese Gaming Craze to Fitness Phenomenon
Video game maker Konami released DDR in Japan in 1998 and brought it to the U.S. the following year. Critics initially thought the game was too quirky to succeed in the American market, but by 2001 it had become a national phenomenon, expanding from arcade consoles to home versions on Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox.

A few years later, Dr. Linda Carson, a professor at West Virginia University’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, spotted a group of kids playing DDR in a mall arcade. As she watched them dancing, sweating and gulping water, she realized that they were exercising—and paying to do it. So Carson and other WVU researchers launched a study to find out if DDR could help combat childhood obesity.

Initial results showed significant health benefits for children who played the game regularly, including an increase in aerobic capacity, improved arterial ability to deliver oxygen and no weight gain. The kids who took part in the study were also more willing to try new activities and more confident in gym class.

The West Virginia Department of Education was sold. It implemented a DDR pilot program at 20 middle schools in the fall of 2004 and soon after mandated that the game be integrated into the physical education programs of all its middle schools, with plans to expand it into all elementary and high schools later this year.

School districts in other states, including Hawaii, Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi, have followed suit. In California, DDR has become part of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s annual fitness challenge to increase physical activity in K–12 schools, and a district in Missouri adopted the game at the behest of a parent who made a case for it, based on the dramatic changes it sparked in her formerly pudgy son.    

Making It Work
DDR units in schools range from two-player arcade systems that cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, to a more modest setup consisting of a television or media projector, video game console (PlayStation, Xbox or Wii), game software and a dance mat, starting at $200.

These days, many schools opt for the more economical choice of a video game console and heavy-duty dance mats. In this version, two or four players can use the active dance mats, while the rest of the class plays along on practice mats that aren’t hooked up to sensors. The cost for accommodating 20 children this way is roughly $1,000.

While some schools have entire classes of up to 50 kids dancing along on practice mats, others prefer to offer DDR as one choice in a series of fitness “stations.” It’s a popular practice that’s in line with the current trend of switching the focus from competitive sports to individual achievement.

Finding a Connection Between the Arcade and the Studio
But does DDR have any impact on children’s dance skills? So far, anecdotal evidence doesn’t show much of a link between DDR and other dance forms—even among advanced players who compete in performance-based freestyle tournaments. In an informal poll taken a few years ago on www.ddrfreak.com, 60 percent of respondents said they did not participate in dance activities outside of the arcade, and the remaining 40 percent said they danced mainly at parties and clubs.

LeAnn Haggard, a dance and physical education instructor at North Central High School in Indianapolis, says it’s up to P.E. teachers to encourage children who have a knack for movement to explore other options. “If students who experience DDR get turned on to dance, who’s going to grab them?” she says. “You need someone who can say, ‘You’ve got great rhythm. Have you ever considered a dance class?’”  DT

Michelle Vellucci is a freelance writer in New York City.

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