I hadn’t danced a day in my life before I spontaneously decided to go in on a discarded Kinect with possibly the best argument for owning one: Harmonix’s Dance Central (2010). My lack of dancefloor experience was not for a lack of interest. I’d made a point to position myself as “the wallflower who could (if only someone would give me a push).” I went to school dances, stood at the edge of wedding reception mosh pits, and spent hours studying dance videos on YouTube only to find that I was still as unable to get my body moving as ever. All of that changed with Dance Central.
Though I had been exposed to dancing games in the past through my younger siblings’ love of Just Dance (2014) on the Wii, what compelled me about Dance Central was that it was a full body experience. I couldn’t just wave my hand and come away with a perfect score. To succeed I was going to need to get out of my comfort zone – way out of my comfort zone – but by the time it became clear what exactly I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to go back.
I’d purchased Dance Central with the intention of it being a relationship experience with S. and I, but my apprehension at looking like an absolute fool led me to try it first in the safety of my empty dorm room. I stood before the Kinect’s all-seeing-eye and flailed my way through the menu into my first song: Van McKoy’s “The Hustle.”
I wish I could say it was a seamless experience, that I suddenly awakened a dancing queen inside of me I had always known was there but couldn’t get to, but it wasn’t. I stumbled over myself, trying to match the moves on screen in so uncoordinated a fashion as to cause passersby to think I was having a seizure. By the time the song ended I had already worked up a sweat (intensified by a feeling of mortification when a maintenance man knocked on my door a minute later and I scrambled to turn the game off). But despite all my reservations and embarrassments, I noticed something after that first track: I still couldn’t dance, but maybe that was OK after all.
For as long as I can remember I have harbored a sort of fantasy that one day something will click and I will be able to dance with style and no inhibitions. Perhaps that fantasy includes taking swing lessons with a partner or getting unceremoniously thrown onto the dancefloor and having to let loose, but the result is the same: I learn to dance without having to embarrass myself in the process. Dance Central made it immediately clear that this was, and always had been, a pipedream.
Dancing is tough. Moving with any kind of grace or rhythm takes an immense amount of practice and a deep understanding of your body. I wasn’t going to develop that overnight and now that reality was quantified in front of me by a miserably low score. And yet, I was happy. For once, I felt like I had experienced the sort of joy that I could see in others when they danced: the freedom and self-expression of moving to the beat of a song. The outer world faded away and it was only me and my body left in the room.
The next step was dancing with another person in the room, an initially terrifying prospect made easier by S. being both incredibly encouraging and a less than accomplished dancer herself (though still miles beyond me, it should be said). We cleared the furniture away and donned our workout wear, ready to take on whatever the game would throw at us. An hour later we collapsed in a sweaty heap, giddy with laughter. We couldn’t dance. That much was clear. But it didn’t matter. With Dance Central we had found a means to experience the joy of dancing free from the anxieties of clubbing or dance circles. The scores didn’t matter. The difficulty didn’t matter. What was important is we were having fun with something that previously had only brought embarrassment. It was alarmingly freeing.
I don’t think any of this is accidental. Where other dance games I’ve tried seem to universally position themselves as means to live out a fantasy as a world class pop star, Dance Central is more intimate. A silly storyline takes the game to some ridiculous places, but the dancing itself is always grounded and humble. It’s a game designed to be enjoyed not mastered, and as such the barrier to entry is low and the stakes even lower. No matter how bad my dancing became I never saw a Game Over screen or felt as if the game was mocking me. In fact, often, Dance Central hardly felt like a game at all. It was a platform with which to release my inhibitions, and maybe learn some moves in the process.
Dance Central might not have taught me to dance, but it definitely taught me how to enjoy dancing. As it turns out, all I had to do was let go and try.
Dance Central was developed by Harmonix and is available exclusively for Xbox 360.
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