Save Point: Dance Dance Revolution

It is spring, which means warmer days and graduation season. A time of year that always makes me feel a certain kind of longing for something I can’t quite name.

I am sentimental. Almost chronically nostalgic. I accept this, but this year in particular is causing me to reflect on what that means and why, exactly, I am so intoxicated by the past. This year, I participated in my first graduation ceremony as a full-time faculty member at a college. This year, also, my younger brother graduated from high school. Clearly, time has moved on. Years have passed. Much has changed. So why, inside, am I sometimes still 18?

When I think of my senior year of high school, I immediately think of Dance Dance Revolution. We played it almost constantly, my three closest friends and I. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure how it started. I remember playing DDR in 1999 when I visited Osaka as an exchange student. The children in my host family had their own in-home dance pad, and we played it for hours: the perfect, wordless icebreaker. I remember being excited when it arrived at the U.S. arcade my dad and I visited on weekends. And I remember playing it ferociously, urgently, with my friends at the local bowling alley, long before any of us purchased it ourselves.

That’s how it must have started: the bowling alley. We bowled almost weekly back then because the lanes offered a student discount that was just too good to pass up. We weren’t very good at it. We never did it competitively. But it passed the time, and we spent many happy afternoons there, listening to whatever music crooned over the speakers, whispering behind hands as we people-watched, and making up silly My-Little-Pony-inspired names for ourselves that sent us into peals of laughter every time they lit up on the scorecard screen.

When we were finished bowling, we would stop by the arcade section of the alley. There wasn’t much to behold. A decrepit shooter. An air hockey table. One of those claw games with stuffed creatures so garish you weren’t really sure you wanted them. But then, yes, the crown jewel: a beautiful, loud, flashing DDR machine that pulsed with neon allure. “You can really dance!” it exclaimed periodically over the surging beats of techno. We gave it many hours and many more quarters. We challenged ourselves, pushed ourselves, cheered each other on. I must have failed DJ Amuro’s “A” on Heavy at least a hundred times. I don’t even want to think about the amount of sweat our sticky palms left on the machine’s buttons and bars. Once, trying to gain an advantage, one of us even split open a toe playing barefoot. Maybe it’s proof of the unity I felt that I can’t recall which one of us it was who limped off the platform, laughing and bleeding. That I don’t remember the song.

These are among my most cherished memories of that time. They feel crystallized, as if preserved in amber, and somehow simultaneously singing all around me, something that lives and rushes through my veins. How does memory do this? Sit like a glass orb we take off the shelf, and at the same time animate our limbs day to day? How can I be the self I am now and still, when I hear a certain song, or perch a certain way on a plastic chair in a bowling alley, feel I have not grown, not changed at all? I feel, in this way, stratified—like I am all my past selves and my present at once. That all it takes to penetrate down, to usher up a past self like a plate of clay or soil, is the right song, the right beat, the sight of ascending arrows. That my 18-year-old eyes, my way of seeing, of feeling, are still there, intact.

When I feel like this—like I am one of those body flipbooks where earlier heads can be seamlessly fit onto later, more advanced torsos—I am overcome by nostalgia. A longing—a desperate longing for something. But what? More importantly, why? I had a happy adolescence, but I have a happy adult life too. Yes, my friends were geographically closer, but we are still in touch. No one is stopping me from playing video games. I could go play DDR right now if I wanted. So why this seasonal ache?

There are two things, I think. First off, no. Though no one is physically stopping me from going and playing DDR, there are other factors that prevent it psychologically. I am 31 years old. Is it not something for the young? I’m reminded of when, a few years back, I attended a local sci-fi/fantasy con alone. It was, to date, one of the saddest experiences of my life. Because I looked at these young people doing things I used to do—cosplaying in groups, sprawling on the floor of an open hotel room with a bag of chips in one hand and a PlayStation controller in the other, shouting at screens and elbowing friends—and I felt lost. Out of place. Like I did not belong. That this was something I was meant to have outgrown by 27, much less now. Granted, maybe it is not age-specific, but rather that I was alone. As isolating as some make games and TV-viewing out to be, I’ve found them to be almost inherently social activities. Common ground to bond on. In either case, maybe slipping barefoot onto some DDR pad far from where I grew up would be less a rekindling and more like a haunting. Visitation by someone who should have moved on. Adults seldom travel in tightly-knit packs. Maybe that was the well of alienation at that con, not the hobbies or costumes themselves.

But also, I think, there is something pivotal and unique about the senior year of high school. A friend and I reflected on this once and concluded it is special because nothing is expected of you and everything is expected of you: in short, you are all potential. At 18, no one is expecting you to have scaled whatever mountain suits your talents. Yet, at the same time, they are expectant, full of faith, nudging and nodding you onward. The feeling of that paradox is something distinct, unduplicated at subsequent graduations. At least, this has been true for me. Those moments when you feel that anything is possible, that your life could go any direction—are those fewer as we age? Is that the source of longing? The natural, normal, even consciously decided on, but exponentially increasing closed doors?

Maybe so. But still, I wouldn’t trap us there, four girls stuck in amber. Time doesn’t function like that. Furthermore, potential doesn’t function like that. It is not meant to be stilled. We are unfurling, all of us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It is spring and that means warmer days and graduation season. A million roller coasters pausing on hills, then zooming toward what is next. Just like dancing only works if you are willing to move, maybe time only works when we are willing to change.

I still miss those days. I still miss that bowling alley. I miss that shared feeling of coiled energy, poised and waiting to spring. But as you can’t steal second with your foot on first, you can’t hit the up and left arrows with your feet on down and right. And we have too much dancing to do.