Performance Central

Alright alright, so I finally put Dance Central in the Xbox, activated the evil red eye of doom that is the Kinect, and set to work. First, as I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere, it has lovely menus. They feel like menus from one’s Minority Report dreams, I suppose. I like them, and they work.

My main experience with Dance Central, putting aside the menus, unsurprisingly circled around the concept of performance. Just not quite in the way I’d envisaged. My basic idea of the game before playing was that it would expose me for the dancing fraud I am, and that that would be embarrassing, but also somehow liberating. Instead, it’s a bit different.

The major form of performance in the session of play I had today concerned not really dancing but rather a kind of interpreted motion. Interpret_ed_, rather than interpret_ive_, please note. Particularly because you spend a fair bit of time with the game teaching you each move initially, and because even during the proper dance sequence dancing is presented as distinct chunks of highly constrained motion, playing Dance Central is about moving right, not dancing. In this way, it’s a kind of mechanical performance for the Kinect.

You go through motions largely trying to imagine how the little black camera-array under your TV is interpreting them, rather than thinking of those motions as expressive or related to dance at all. In a way, I suppose, we could think of this as a kind of “robot dance” (ha ha). We’re dancing for a machine, and to do that you have to dance more or less like a machine in order for it to understand (and judge) what you’re doing. So the “performance” is more in the sense of “high performance engine” than anything else – are you functionally successful? Only the Kinect knows.

Now that’s a long way from what I, in my deeply primitive understanding, think of as “dance”. Because I was so wrapped up in being interpreted correctly by the Kinect, I was able to give very little thought to the idea that dancing is a form of self-expression, that it’s an aesthetic practice. That’s something that, understandably, the game can’t really comment on, so I’m not really anticipating that element changing over time. What I do hope for, however, is that as you get better with the “moves” that Dance Central is made up of, and as you come to know the routines off by heart, there starts to be room for expressive movement, rather than the purely mechanical.

In one glossy future, I see myself dancing these routines with “flare”, you see. That is, to not just to do the “blazers” in a way that earns me the Kinect seal of approval, but that actually interprets the song and the motion in an interesting way. For instance, in dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” I’d anticipate some sort of more jerky, popping-and-locking style would make sense. And with other songs other styles, perhaps more flowing or explosive, would make sense. The big question for me at that point is, will the game allow that level of interpretation and expression over the top of the basic mechanical nature of the dance moves? I don’t know the answer, that’s a “wait and see” one.

Finally, I can’t help but point out a final form of performance that played into today’s session. You see, we live on the ground floor of our apartment building, in a nice, airy living room, with a lot of windows. And no curtains or blinds. There are windows onto the street and there are windows that face directly into our neighbours’ dining room, where they often sit with their small child. As I danced my way through “Poker Face” I could help but be painfully aware that I was performing for people outside the windows. That element of dancing “for” other people (on purpose or not) is a big part of a game made especially odd by not having a simultaneous two-player mode. By necessity, if there’s someone else around, you’re dancing for me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, someone promised to take me to Funkytown, and I don’t want to be late.

5 December 2010
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