The lone dancer

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It’s a slightly busy afternoon in the Games Center, in the basement of the Wilkinson Center. Bowling pins collide, an air hockey puck ricochets from side to side, clusters of students and families chatter among themselves. Individually, nothing all that loud. Collectively, though, it coalesces into a stream of slightly chaotic sound. It seems every machine adds its voice to the reverberating almost-madness.

But one machine, the “X2 Exceed” dancing game, plays quieter than it once did. Joel Tobey wants it turned up. And he’s not afraid to ask.

Things have changed for Tobey and his favorite game since they became acquainted 10 years ago. Back then, the Games Center had an older version, called “Pump It Up,” and it was arguably the center’s biggest attraction, other than bowling. Tobey even used to wait in line for it. Now, though, it seems the dance game junkie is part of a dying breed. These days, Tobey often finds himself coercing others into playing the game, even offering to pay for their turn; anything to get someone else — anyone else — to join in. The game’s thrill may have faded for most everyone, but not for Tobey. Around these parts, he’s one of the game’s last regulars. But funny reactions from the passersby don’t phase him — not in video game dancing; not in anything, really.

“It’s cool to get attention sometimes,” Tobey said. “I’m a performer; I like attention, getting people’s reactions.”

Tobey has long been used to the public’s stare. Originally getting his undergrad in music/dance/theatre, Tobey is now back at the Y getting a master’s in business administration,  prepping for his dream of running his own theater. Coming back to BYU after a few years away, Tobey was shocked to see all the dust accumulating on the game that dominated his undergrad years.

“It was really popular; people were on it all the time,” Tobey said, recalling his first encounters with the game as a recent return missionary in 2001. Though he spent lots of time in dance classes and studios, Tobey found his training didn’t give him much of an advantage, and he started at the bottom like everyone else.

“I would shadow other people, behind them, and just practice,” Tobey said. “It was kind of a free way to practice, without having to pay quarters.”

After a while, Tobey found himself using quite a few quarters, stopping by the Games Center up to five times a week, and making his way past the beginner levels, then the intermediate levels, then to the advanced ones. Tobey even took women there on dates — partially to show off his own skills, but also to discover if his date measured up.

“It would score high points from me when I was dating if they would at least try it,” Tobey said. “If they’re not willing to try it, I’m like ‘I don’t know if I’m interested in you anymore.’”

Tobey eventually found a lady who was up for the challenge. In 2005 he met Jenn, who he married the following year. According to Jenn, however, she didn’t learn about Joel’s affection for the game until after they were married, when they started hitting up the dancing game as a cheap date.

“We’ve had quite a few days where we’ve gone in and there’s nobody around doing any of the games, and after we’ve been there for a half an hour working up a sweat, we’ve got five people in line behind us, wanting to play,” she said.

All that attention might embarrass or dissuade most other people from giving the game their all — but not Tobey.

“His ability to just be himself and not worry about what others are thinking is fabulous,” his wife said. “You’re walking down the street, and suddenly he just breaks out into song and dance because he wants to. It rolls over into all aspects of his life.”

Tobey’s lack of pretense caught the eye of Katie Burdick, a Games Center employee who first met Tobey about a year ago. Tobey often asks her and other employees to turn up the game’s volume when he plays. The increased volume has drawn attention from some, and criticism from others. Whatever the reaction, Tobey never hesitates to get the game turned up, it even overpowers the other sounds in the center.

“I just admire him, because I could never do that,” Burdick admitted. “I work here, and I still don’t play that game. I’m too self-conscious.”

In her time at the Games Center, Burdick said she has seen only a few others use the game as regularly as Tobey, and chalks the collective disinterest up to mere self-consciousness. But his zeal, she said, usually has a contagious affect on those who see him in action. And, to Burdick, it goes beyond Tobey’s dancing ability.

“He is a super nice, friendly guy,” Burdick said. “And I think people notice his dancing, but they really should get to know him. He’s a good person to have come around.”

During the last 10 years, Tobey has watched the collective eagerness for his treasured game fade dramatically, into something closer to indifference. But he vigilantly hopes to find something that might propel the once-popular game back to its former glories.

“Having known how popular it was, and where it is now, I’d love to see something to rebirth it,” Tobey said. “It needs something to prime the pump. Maybe I can get there more often in the evenings, when there’s people there … “

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