Do I think I can dance? No way. I'm a middle-aged white guy that grew up in Calgary. That's a place where the population's inability to move with any fluidity resulted in group movement along a line being classified as dancing. It's where we spent our teenaged years slamming into each other in a mosh pit because the music was really intense and we didn't know what else to do with our teeming hormonal energy.
I've marvelled at the beautiful movement of dancers, and how effortlessly they express themselves. But I've never believed I could do what they do.
Dance Central has changed that.
Developed by Harmonix, which created Guitar Hero and is still finding ways to make Rock Band better, Dance Central teaches music appreciation through movement, and it does so using the Kinect for Xbox 360's motion-detecting, controller-free sensor. As it was developed for Kinect, you'll need to clear out a good eight square feet in front of your television to give yourself enough space to move freely.
On the disc are 32 songs ranging from Lady Gaga's Poker Face to Fatboy Slim's remix of Body Movin' by the Beastie Boys. Pop, funk, hip-hop, Latin and R&B music stylings are present, even including some older dance club favourites from the '70s – like Brick House (Commodores) and Jungle Boogie (Kool & the Gang) – and '80s – such as Pump Up the Jam (Technotronic) and FunkyTown (Lipps Inc.).
Downloadable tracks are already available, with songs from Ne-Yo, Lady Sovereign and Sean Paul songs in the catalogue.
But Dance Central isn't about the music as much as it is the movement. Each song has had choreographed dance moves set to it. You execute the moves – there are three difficulty levels – according to icons that hint at the movement to be performed. Just as you play a specific note when prompted in a music game, in Dance Central you perform a specific move when prompted. Your movement is compared to that of a model dancer that is on screen performing the choreography as it was intended.
I knew that jumping in at this level was beyond me, so instead I took advantage of the title's Break It Down mode, the feature that makes Dance Central so playable. This takes complex choreography and deconstructs it into its core movements.
- The Goods Platform: MTV Games developer: Harmonix platform: Kinect for Xbox 360 ESRB rating: teen The Good: Easy to navigate menus; good progression from beginner to expert; choreography deconstructed into basic, discreet movements that anyone can perform. The Bad: Make sure you’ve got lots of room to move; people living in postage-stamp apartments may have to play elsewhere. The Verdict: Just as Harmonix empowered everyone to <i>play</i> the music they love, now they’ve given us all a reason to get up and dance to it.
In Break It Down, the complete choreography is split into three or four sections of three or four moves each. You practice each move on its own, then linked with a couple of other moves. Only after you've worked through each discreet movement on its own, and then in a small grouping of three or four movements, do you attempt to perform the complete choreography.
And if you get stuck trying to figure out how to throw your left hip out while your right hand is swinging up, you can slow down the step within Break It Down for some extra time.
As you move from easy to medium to hard, the choreography becomes more complex. It adds more moves and switches those moves up more frequently during the song.
It's not easy to learn how to move. The fact that humans can move in so many ways is quite amazing.
If you've ever – especially as an adult – tried to learn how to move in a different way, this comes as no surprise to you. Those yoga poses are difficult. It's tough to hit a baseball, or golf ball. Just try to take up hockey, especially if you've never skated before.
When adults try to learn new physical movements, it's as if we've become infants again, learning how to grab our toes and crawl. Except now it hurts.
The most important aspect of trying to teach someone a new movement is feedback. People benefit from being able to see how their body is moving, because how we think we're moving, and how we're actually moving are rarely similar. That's why coaches and trainers started using video with their athletes. Being able to reconcile the image of what your body is doing when you're moving with the physical sensations you have when you move – kinesthesia – is critical to improving.
It is in how Dance Central provides feedback that makes it so valuable. The game actually provides feedback in three ways.
First, a shining silhouette of your body is displayed on screen so you can match what your body is doing to how the model dancer is moving. Second, you can get a sense of how accurately you are moving by watching the model dancer. Their limbs become outlined in red if your body isn't matching their movement. And third, the announcer will tell you if you're not keeping up or not executing the moves properly.
Put them all together, and Dance Central is primed to teach you how to groove. After you've mastered the steps in Break It Down, you progress to Perform It! mode in your attempts to run through the entire choreography. In Dance Battle you can go head-to-head with another dancer, to see who's been practicing more.
When performing each song there's a freestyle section that gives you a chance to ad-lib, as it were. It's a chance to have some fun with the moves, but be forewarned that the game is recording you.
Dance Central is both energetic and empowering. It shows us that another way to appreciate music is to move to it, and it teaches us how to do that with at least some semblance of style.
What I realized, however, in comparing my movements with that of the model dancers, is that what makes a truly great dancer isn't how accurately they perform the steps of the choreography, but how the rest of their body moves while they execute those movements. This is something that Dance Central just can't teach, and it's why I'm not about to audition for some reality TV show to prove that I can shake my moneymaker. But at least I know I can pull out a move or two the next time I'm at a wedding.