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Stepping Out 

Dance Dance Revolution fans trip the light fantastic in Tucson.

Brandon Smith takes Dance Dance Revolution seriously.

Before participating in a Labor Day weekend Dance Fast Dance Furious competition at Funtasticks Family Fun Park, Smith, 21, spent a few minutes away from the crowd, stretching his legs so he'd be loose enough to rapidly step from colored footpad to colored footpad. He set up a video camera to record his moves so he could review his performance later. He was confident he could beat any Level 9 song--impressive, considering how light your feet have to be.

"In terms of DDR, I'm a heavy player," said Smith, who just moved here from Sierra Vista, which he says has no Dance Dance Revolution outlet other than the home version. "It's a great cardiovascular workout. It's better than just playing a bunch of video games at home that make you gain weight."

Smith is one of many gamers who have fallen in love with Dance Dance Revolution, an arcade craze that's a far cry from eating pellets and avoiding ghosts Pinky, Inky, Blinky and Clyde. Throngs of foot-stomping enthusiasts--mostly young, but some older folks, too--are said to be hooked on its blend of timing and endurance.

You may have seen some of the DDR machines, of which DDR Extreme is the latest version, or "mix." They're behemoths with flashing lights, a pink and blue footpad and belt-out-loud dance music. The object is to time your steps to match the arrows--up, down, left and right--as they float by the top of the screen. Experienced players look groovy as they glide through the moves, while newbies generally have two left feet.

DDR is healthy, squeaky-clean fun that encourages camaraderie among kids, according to Jill Hofer, director of marketing for Funtasticks, 221 E. Wetmore Road.

"You're talking about a market that's pretty recalcitrant and shy, so it's just so positive," she said. "There they are in front of their peers, and they love it. It's a thrill to be a part of a positive arcade craze. There's a pretty steep learning curve, but once you get it--you've got it."

Nearly three dozen sweaty contestants turned out for last weekend's "Dance Fast Dance Furious." Winners received cash prizes, as well as a free pass to the national competition at Scottsdale's Fiddlesticks Family Fun Park on Nov. 15. (The contest will cost most entrants at least $20.)

Tucsonan Jaime Escalante won third place in the advanced group, netting him $50. He said that during the summer, he played once or twice a week, and has made $400 in various competitions held throughout the city.

Escalante claimed that the only time he has had problems with people was when he just started.

"These guys got up there and started making fun of us," he said. "I told them to go follow another trend, because being stupid is so last week."

Far from being harassed, contestant Sam Schneider said she's actually made friends on Tuesday trips to the mall for practice. The 12-year-old Tucsonan was all energy at the competition, declaring her love of the game in between rounds.

"It's a great mode of exercise," she said. "It's like going to a gym, but more fun."

Tim Martin, of Tucson, was a bit less rosy when pressed about DDR's usefulness as a form of exercise. He said he doesn't "really suck" at DDR, but recognized his limitations when he declared he was "not really the bomb," either. To practice while they waited their turn, Martin, 14, and a friend mirrored the moves of competitors.

"It's a different kind of video game, and people get into it," he said. "It's really fun and it's good exercise--not really good exercise, but it's fun exercise."

A physical education department at a school in California thinks DDR is more than fun: They reportedly bought machines for their students to use in gym class. One child claimed to have lost as much as 15 pounds.

Phoenix car wholesaler Dorion Whitock, who said he plays every weekend, reportedly lost weight, too--about 30 pounds from when he started nine months ago.

"The music is fun," said Whitock, 26. "I like the crowds that play. It gives me something to do with my niece and whatnot."

Escalante, multi-tasking on AOL Instant Messenger as he spoke on the phone, said that the DDR scene is kind of "stupid"--but that apparently hasn't stopped him from playing.

"I just go on the computer and stuff," he said of his other pastime, in a tone of voice that was Daria-like in its indifference. "(My sister says,) 'Oh, you should play sports and do other things. Oh, that's pretty stupid, but you just made $400, so buy me something.' I think it's pretty stupid, but I just play."

For those of you keeping score at home, Phillip Luchart took first place in the advanced division, with JR Putra and Yang Zoo finishing second and third, respectively. In the intermediate category, two Phonecians--PJ Vilsaint and David Ganem--came south to take the top two spots, with Escalante finishing third. In the basic category, Robert Romero, Landen Transure and Ben Hockin were the top winners.

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