Fancy footwork

Anwatin Middle School students get in shape by dancing to a video game

Children at Anwatin Middle School in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood moved to a techno beat in Jeannine McDonald's gym class on a mid-December morning.

They were stepping in time to music blasted from an amplifier connected to a Playstation II as part of the videogame Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) that's new to the school this fall.

Arrows that point left, right, up and down on a screen projected on the wall instructed the students' movements. The challenge is to keep up with the arrows' pace and direction that speed up or slow down according to a song's tempo.

Although only a handful of schools in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) have DDR, some schools in other districts have already made the video game a gym mainstay in keeping with a growing national trend.

More and more schools are introducing DDR as a way to improve physical fitness. In West Virginia, for instance, DDR is required in all middle school physical education classes.

Its proponents say it helps boost student's heart rates and combat obesity all while being a fun activity.

The DDR equipment at Anwatin, which costs about $1,600, was funded in part by grants, donations and some dollars dedicated to implementing the prestigious International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB/MYP) that the school is working to achieve.

At the high school level, one complete set of DDR equipment has been funded through a federal grant called Healthy Steps to fulfill one aspect of the district's wellness policy.

Currently, the kit is located at South High School, but eventually it'll make its way throughout each of the high schools. Some other MPS schools also have DDR, independent of the shared gear.

&#8220It allows kids to take a risk while building aerobic fitness, coordination and confidence. It's like a sneak attack,” said McDonald, who has taught at Anwatin for 16 years. &#8220The kids don't even know how much they're learning.”

A draw

At Anwatin, two students competed against each other in the video game, bouncing on silver metal mats that lit up when their feet landed on them. Cartoonish characters represented the pair. They could choose from a pirate, a businessperson, a robot and man with wild red hair called Speed Over Beethoven, among others.

Other students practiced on soft mats that weren't connected to the Playstation.

All eyes were glued to the video game screen projected on one wall. A memory card provided the songs. Occasionally, children who have DDR at home bring in their own music libraries to plug into the game.

McDonald, who said she's usually anti-video game, said the response to DDR has been amazing. She's impressed that there's no gender bias. Even now, only one girl is dancing/playing with eight boys.

&#8220If you'd have told me that you could bring in a dance thing and boys would respond to it, I'd have said ‘no way,'” she said.

She said another advantage is that students who don't even like typical gym activities have gotten into DDR. That goes for students who're overweight, too. DDR is a natural fit for the middle school's step dancing unit in which students create their own dances, as well as attend a cultural dance event and write about it.

Since DDR has various skill levels, students may compete against their own previous records or other students, dance in workout mode, or design an individual program. McDonald requires all of her 6th-grade students to do DDR.

She cited a recent University of Minnesota study that examined children's heart rate before and after playing DDR that showed it increases heart rate. In turn, her students take their pulse before and after playing to show them the difference.

A sneak attack

Kong Hang, 7th grade, said his favorite song is &#8220One by Day.” He has DDR at home and plays it daily. Before he began his DDR workout this morning, his pulse was 90. Afterwards, it surged to 120.

Skill levels include beginner, light, standard, heavy and challenge. The game assesses plays with grades A, AA, B, C, D and E. There's also perfect, great, good, not bad, almost and boo. One setting keeps track of how many calories a player has burned.

There are all kinds of ways to change the pace of the game. For instance, players could go into &#8220double mode” in which one person uses both metal pads - sure to be an especially challenging round. An advanced option mixes many songs together.

Antonia Cotton, a 7th-grader, said that to do well in the game, you have to be a spider or octopus. Another 7th-grader, Brandon Cruzen, said: &#8220I like it because of the music. You can hear a lot of music you've never heard of. But it's hard on the slow songs.”

&#8220Butterfly” for instance, is a tough song to step to, he said. Sometimes there are DDR contests at nearby parks or the Mall of America. Some students also choose to play DDR for $5 at school dances.

In March, physical education staffers from the high schools will be trained on DDR at South so that it can travel from school to school. South gym teacher Carol Allery said students are always eager for it.

It fulfills a rhythm and dance unit that's often neglected in high school and hones children's eye-foot coordination, she said. They perform DDR tournaments. At South, autistic children are also using DDR.

Anwatin parent Carl Goldstein said his sons love DDR. They've owned the game for several years and bring the game from house to house for parties. One of his children is especially accomplished in DDR. Additionally, &#8220It's physical activity and fun. That's enough for me. We're big fans of DDR,” he said.

&#8220For the number of kids it reaches, it's worth the money,” said McDonald. &#8220I'm hoping the video game industry will get more and more interactive like this and get kids off the couch.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or