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Movin' to the music

A phys ed dance craze gives a strenuous but fun workout to kids of all athletic abilities.

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published May 17, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
While other students wait their turns, Turkey Creek sixth-graders Jessica Andrlik, 12, left, and Kaitlin Harvey, 11, right, get a workout in gym class in Plant City with the interactive video game Dance Dance Revolution. Schools nationwide are adding the exergame to their curricula.

The soft blue glow from televisions and a projector screen blanket the gymnasium at Turkey Creek Middle School.

Kelly Clarkson's Since You've Been Gone echoes here on a recent Monday in Plant City.

Something groovy's afoot.

Dozens of students gather near square plastic mats where Kelsey Newsome's feet move to the pop beat.

Soon after come cheers, claps and high-fives.

It's someone else's turn to play the heart-thumping video game Dance Dance Revolution.

In case you're wondering, yes, this is gym class.

And for the first time, Kelsey, 12, is enjoying it.

"I get teased about not being able to run fast and not being able to do push-ups," she said. "In here you don't get teased, because we all mess up," she said of the fast-paced dance steps. "And it's fun."

Across Florida and nationwide, schools are deploying Dance Dance Revolution as the latest weapon in the nation's battle against the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Because traditional video games are often criticized for contributing to the fattening of America's children, at least several hundred schools in at least 10 states are now using Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR, as a regular part of their physical education curriculum.

Based on current plans, more than 1,500 schools are expected to be using DDR by the end of the decade.

About 40 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District use it; almost all of West Virginia's 185 middle schools already use it and the state has committed to installing the game in all 765 of its public schools by next year; and, like West Virginia, Hawaii hopes to get the game into all of the state's 265 public schools in the next three years.

Born nine years ago in the arcades of Japan, DDR has become a small craze among a generation of young Americans growing up with technology as a playmate.

For Turkey Creek coach Butch Valdes, pairing video games with PE is evolution. "Kids are just surrounded by video games and we have to adjust to it," he said.

Select YMCAs in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties use DDR to get kids moving, but the game has been slow to step into schools.

Pinellas athletic director Nick Grasso doesn't know of any schools in his district dancing to DDR. But, Hillsborough athletic director Steve Vanoer said, at least a handful of Hillsborough schools are, and there may be more to come.

The Hillsborough County School District is collaborating with a University of South Florida research program to study the effects of DDR and other video games that require moving one's bum and not just one's thumbs.

XRKade Research Lab for children is looking for grant money to install DDR at three Hillsborough County schools -- elementary, middle and high school level -- by next school year, said lab co-director Steve Sanders.

The game, made by Konami of Japan, began in arcades, but it's now most often played on Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox game consoles.

A basic DDR system, including television and game console, can be purchased for less than $500, which many schools usually finance with donations, fundraisers or through school support organizations.

Since December, Sanders and co-director Lisa Witherspoon have studied students from the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Charter School, which is on the USF campus in Tampa, at the lab as they play DDR and other "exergames" that require kids to jump, kick, bike and skateboard.

DDR is just the tip of the video gaming iceberg at Turkey Creek. The school has numerous gaming stations and more than a dozen games that can be played, from mountain bike racing to boxing, tennis and fishing.

Video archery is next, Valdes said.

But DDR tests foot-eye coordination, requiring players to dance in ever more complicated and strenuous patterns in time with the electronic dance music.

As a song plays, arrows pointing one of four directions -- forward, back, left, right -- scroll up the screen in various sequences and combinations requiring the player to step on corresponding arrows on a mat on the floor. Players can dance by themselves, with a partner or in competition.

"This is the first time I've seen athletic kids play next to the obese kids and not be as good at some of the games," Witherspoon said.

USF's research lab is among the first in the nation to evaluate the physical benefits of exergaming.

But exercise is the last thing on Jessi Hargman's mind when he's playing DDR as an after-school activity at Edgewater High School in Orlando.

"I don't really see it as an exercise," he said. "It's too much fun and less of a workout."

To the contrary, Turkey Creek sixth-grader Ladia Reason, 12, would "rather do this than a fitness test or run track."

"I'm trying to lose 20 pounds," she said with little beads of sweat on her brow glistening in the projector's soft blue glow.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Amber Mobley can be reached at 813 269-5311 or amobley@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 16, 2007, 21:28:46]


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