If you are suspicious about just why your kids were so unhappy about missing school during last month's historic winter storm, consider what's happening these days at River Hill High School.
In a room that reeks of feet and perspiration, all eyes are focused on two young men in a battle. A battle of the beat, that is.
"Come on, I'll challenge you!" yells one.
"Break 200, man!" cheers another.
It's club meeting time for the Dance Dance Revolution crew at River Hill High in Clarksville.
While members of other clubs work on the spring play, develop their photographs or work on their public speaking styles, DDR Club members are moving their feet frenetically, following the visual instructions of a hot new video game.
It's not so new in California and other urban centers, but it is hot everywhere, including River Hill, where students use home versions of the DDR arcade game to drive themselves crazy trying to follow the breathless pace of the dance directions.
The game has no controllers, only large platforms on the floor, which have four arrows on them, pointing up, down, left and right.
On a screen facing the panels are four stationary arrows on the top of the screen, pointing in each direction. Arrows scroll upward, and when the scrolling arrow overlaps the stationary arrow, the player uses his or her foot to step on the corresponding arrow on the platform in sync with dance and techno-beat music.
The River Hill DDR Club started in November with five members, said Andrew Chiang, the president. Since January, word spread about the club, and now it has 17 registered members, with membership growing steadily.
At weekly meetings, members go over business, share tips and tricks, and "just play until Mr. Gray [the club adviser] tells us we have to pack it up." The club raised money to purchase two pads; all the other equipment is brought in by the members.
With a faculty adviser, approval and fellow classmates with similar interests, anyone can start a club at River Hill. However, while starting a club is easy enough, surviving isn't. Other clubs have come and gone, but the DDR Club appears to be here to stay for a while.
DDR originated in Japan in 1998 as an arcade game made by Konami. The game made its way to the United States, and after a successful introduction in arcades, DDR was released for home play on PlayStation in 2001 and Playstation2 last fall.
The home versions use special pads as controllers, which can cost from $20 for the basic pad to more than $100 for top-of-the-line.
DDR has been selling well around the country, especially on the West Coast and in urban centers. A Web site devoted to the game (www.ddrfreak.com) says there are 1,428 machines in the United States. California leads with 393, followed by Texas with 114 and Florida with 68. Maryland has 20 machines.
If you have never seen anyone play DDR, it may seem bizarre. Some might not consider it dancing. With two players standing side by side, stomping furiously on the pads, their eyes glued to the screen, it resembles Riverdance more than moves you might see on the dance floor.
So what's so special about the game?
It might be that DDR is great exercise. Since the game requires good speed, coordination, rhythm and balance, most people who play work up a sweat.
"It's fun and a good workout," said Marcus Mosby, a junior who started playing four months ago.
The game has a workout mode that tells the player the number of calories burned during the session.
However, for some, it is all about the glory.
"It's such a great feeling when you play a really tough song in front of a huge crowd of people, and they're all watching you and cheering for you," said Chiang, a senior. "As dumb as it sounds, its an awesome feeling that gives me and most players that rush whenever we play for a crowd."
Kevin Mao, 16, agrees. He became interested in DDR while on vacation in Florida three years ago. "We were at Islands of Adventure and saw a guy playing a really hard song," he said. "There was a massive crowd around him."
The game is fairly easy to learn, and the DDR Club has attracted many newcomers.
Fumie Takahashi, a junior, starting playing about a month ago, and loves it. "It's energetic," he said. "I can dance, it's like woo!"
He said the strategy for getting better is to play lots of songs ranging in levels, and then progress to the difficult ones.
Mosby must have the secret to success. He started playing four months ago at a friend's birthday party, and has progressed to the most difficult level.
"I try to play once a day," he said, still sweating from his last run.
"People are getting better a lot faster," said Chiang. "It's hard for the old guys like me."
One thing is for sure: The DDR Club remains a male-dominated society. Why no girls?
"I want to know that, too," said Chiang. "The game probably doesn't appeal to them." He thought for a while. "We had a girl in here once!" he said.
The club's next priority is Howard's first DDR High School Tournament, which will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday in the River Hill cafeteria.
"The club is attempting to gather as many people as possible from schools in Howard County," Chiang said. "The aim is to get the good word of DDR out countywide."
The tournament will have two divisions, novice and advanced, with a qualifying round to rank the players, going into head-to-head battles.
Chiang also hopes the tournament will show another side of DDR - the competitive side.
"It's more than just a game," he said. "Its something that people can really see as part of their life."
To register for the Howard County Invitational DDR Tournament, send an e-mail to Andrew Chiang at firstname.lastname@example.org or instant message him at DDRMaXx0r. Information is also available at www.andrewsky.net/djdrew. html. Participants must be students of Howard high schools.