TJ VanToll

How I Won a Dancing World Championship That One Time

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Some of the medals I won in Norway

I’m not usually a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy, but this year I decided to make a single resolution: I want to write more, and to occasionally write about random things that spark my interest, and not just tech stuff.

With that context in mind, I figured I might as well start by writing up the best story I have to tell: how I won a dancing world championship. See, here’s a totally-not-embarrassing picture of me in 2006 with the the trophy.

There’s a catch though. If your brain immediately envisioned me dancing something like the tango, thank you for your inflated vision of my abilities, but you’re unfortunately way off base.

No, instead, think dancing, but, like, the nerdiest way to do dancing. Like, really, really nerdy. Because the dancing I’m talking about is Dance Dance Revolution, and in 2006, I was named the “Overall Champion” of the “IDO Machine Dance World Cup” held in Oslo, Norway.

This is a serious thing that happened in reality, and today I want to give you a way-too-detailed story of how things went down.

The game

Growing up in southeastern Michigan, we made a yearly pilgrimage to Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of the world that’s inexplicably in northern Ohio.

Cedar Point is best known for their coasters, but they also have an enormous arcade, and sometime in the early 2000s they got a big new game cabinet that they put right at the front: Dance Dance Revolution.

Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR, requires you to hit arrows on the floor in time with arrows that appear on the screen, all to the rhythm of music playing from the arcade cabinet.

I was transfixed.

The game somehow managed to merge my primary interests at the time: video games, athletics, and Japanese culture.

My brother and sister also loved the game, and shortly after the Cedar Point trip, we got the home version that came with pads you could plug in as a PlayStation controllers.

Like normal people, we spent months in our basement playing on those pads until we were able to beat the hardest songs in the game. We had an amazing time, but we slowly started to figure something out: if you want to play Dance Dance Revolution seriously, you really can’t do so on home pads.

Home pads don’t grip the floor, and trying to make them stick with things like duct tape doesn’t work as well as you might think. (Trust me, we tried.) Another problem is the pads give you zero feedback on whether your foot hit an arrow or missed, as the entire pad feels the same, which becomes problematic as you move into harder songs.

Playing on a full-blown arcade machine was the only way to further our obsession, and luckily for us arcades were still a thing in the early 2000s.

The Malls and tournaments

The closest DDR machine to my house was at an American Fun Center in the Westland Mall, and I spent an absurd amount of time and money there. When I started college shortly thereafter at Central Michigan University, I had two convenient DDR options: one at the Malt Shop right on campus, and another in Soaring Eagle Casino, which unexpectedly had a really nice arcade with two DDR machines.

On one of my trips to the Westland Mall a saw something that would make DDR an obsession of mine for years to come: a flier for a DDR tournament at my mall’s arcade. As I would soon find out, DDR was popular enough for there to be a competitive scene, mostly online through community leaderboards, but occasionally through in-person tournaments at arcades throughout the world.

I’ve been competitive all my life, and DDR came along at the perfect time to scratch my competitive itch. I had played baseball and basketball from a very young age, and had always been very good at both. But as the years went on, I went from being one of the best players on my elementary teams, to being an average middle-school player, to being not good enough to make my high school’s teams. By the time I was a senior the only sport I still played was tennis, and once I graduated that would be gone too.

DDR was my competitive outlet, and throughout 2004 and 2005 I remember competing in a variety of random tournaments, mostly throughout Michigan, but occasionally out of state as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have a ton of pictures of these tournaments, as cell-phone cameras weren’t a thing yet, but here are a few that survived so you can get a sense of what the atmosphere was like.

As I competed more I realized I had a fairly big competitive advantage: I had been an athlete all my life, and most of the DDR community had not. And when you get to the harder songs DDR throws at you, those years of playing baseball, basketball, tennis and cross country start to pay off.

I started to win local tournaments, and started to look for bigger tournaments to see if I could be competitive at a national level. And that’s about the time In the Groove shook up the machine-dancing world.

In the Groove

Dance Dance Revolution is a game made by the company Konami in Japan. The company sells arcade cabinets to malls and arcades around the world, but, at the time, they didn’t do anything to try to build a competitive scene for the game. All the tournaments I competed in, and the online leaderboards I participated in, were community-run, and Konami never stepped in to try to support the community efforts.

Furthermore, Konami had let DDR languish. Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, the most popular title of the time, debuted in late 2002, and years later had received no updates. Meanwhile, competitive players had achieved perfect scores on nearly every song in the game, and were looking for more.

In late 2004, Roxor Games stepped in with In the Groove, a new take on DDR that used the same basic concept, but gave dedicated players a lot of what Konami’s games lacked.

First and foremost, In the Groove delivered fresh music, new gameplay modes, and harder songs, all of which reinvigorated a community that was getting bored with the same DDR game they had been playing for years.

Around this time I also got a digital camera that could take decent video, so I’ll start to embed the those videos in this article as they make sense. Here’s one I have of my sister and me playing an In The Groove song named Queen of Light in 2005, that shows off some of the new gameplay, such as needing to use your hands to hit arrows.

Roxor’s innovation didn’t stop just by building a better game though. They also spent a lot of time trying to establish a relationship with the community that Konami had ignored.

This initiative to help build the community included new, officially sanctioned worldwide competitions, which generated a ton of hype in our small machine-dancing circles. It worked so well that most of the community, including me, started playing In The Groove exclusively.

In The Groove tournaments

In 2005, Roxor announced that their first tournament series would start in the fall of 2005, and culminate with a world championship sometime in 2006. The first step towards the championship was a series of regional finals, in which you had to finish in the top handful of positions to qualify for a US-wide tournament in Vegas.

The closest regionals to me were in Chicago, and in November of 2005 I travelled there to compete for a spot in Vegas. The #1 ranked played in the country, LilQ, was from Chicago, so I remember thinking I didn’t have much of a chance to win, but I had a decent shot at getting second.

The trip ended up being a lot of fun. I had my chance at facing LilQ and got stomped, but I still ended up third overall, which was good enough.

Once again, I’m sad I didn’t take more pictures from the event, but I did save some videos others took of a few of my matches. Below is my favorite video, as it’s a match I won playing what was then the hardest song in the game, Pandemonium.

Qualifying for Vegas was a big deal for me for a few different reasons. First, I was excited to compete in what was going to be the biggest machine-dancing tournament ever held.

But on a personal note, Vegas would be the farthest from home I had ever been. It was only my second time on an airplane, and it would be the first place outside of the Midwest that I traveled to by myself.


The Vegas tournament was held on January 16th, 2006 in the Adventure Dome in Circus Circus, which ended up being a great venue, as there was a lot of space for the large crowd. Luckily this time I was smart enough to take a decent amount of pictures, as this event really was a big deal to me. Here’s a broad shot that gives you a look at what the tournament atmosphere looked like.

The prizes were by far the largest of any dancing tournament to date. The top 3 competitors would win a trip to Norway for next year’s world championship tournament, and the top dancer would additionally win an In The Groove 2 arcade cabinet, which retailed for about $10,000 USD at the time.

Going into the tournament I was ranked somewhere around 10th in the US, so I knew my chances of winning were slim to none, but I was hoping I could luck my way into the top 3, as a trip to Norway sounded incredible.

The biggest thing I remember about the tournament itself is that it took forever, as it was a double-elimination format with something like 50+ players, and only two machines to do the matches on. I took a picture of the final bracket at the end, and if you look closely you can see “TJ” being eliminated in the bottom-left corner.

I finished in 12th place, which, while disappointing, was about where I was supposed to finish so I left happy enough. Good enough that I was interviewed by the Detroit News, leading to a story that I still have framed on my wall today.

LilQ (center in the picture below) won first place, beating out Damien (left), and DukAmok (right), and all three won a trip to compete at the world championship in Norway.

Overall Vegas was an awesome experience for me, as I got to meet a lot of people that I had only known online, and to compete against them when a lot was at stake.

And then something really unexpected happened: at the end of the tournament, Roxor announced that they were holding another world-qualifying tournament later that year, but this time the tournament would be for doubles.


When you start a game in DDR or In the Groove (ITG), the very first thing the game asks you is whether you want to play in single mode or double mode. Single mode is played on four arrows, whereas double mode uses all eight arrows on the machine. The overwhelming majority of players play singles, but doubles has a niche following as it offers a slightly different way to play the game.

In 2005, when In the Groove was first growing in popularity, I started playing doubles out of boredom. At college I didn’t have a local In the Groove machine, and I had become bored playing the same DDR Extreme songs I had been playing for years. I quickly learned that doubles is a unique challenge, and although some of your skill transfers from singles, becoming good at doubles requires a solid time investment. Here’s a video of me playing a song called Temple of Boom so you can have a mental picture of what playing doubles looks like.

I quickly discovered that I was pretty good at doubles, somewhat because it fit my play style, and also somewhat because I had an unfair advantage on certain songs that require reach, as I’m 6‘2”, and thus just larger than most of my competitors.

Whereas I was ranked somewhere around 10th in the country in singles, in doubles I rose to be the top-ranked doubles player. But although this sounds impressive, it meant nothing competitively, as I had never heard of a doubles competition ever happening.

This is why Roxor announcing a doubles competition in 2006 was an enormous deal to me: it was a large tournament I could win.

Getting to Austin

Roxor’s new doubles tournament would be held in March of 2006 in Austin, Texas. For me this was great minus one big problem: I was a broke college kid with very little money.

I was able to get to Vegas because Vegas flights were cheap, and because I was able to split a hotel room with several of my friends that were also competing. Austin flights were more expensive, and I had no one to share a room with in Austin, as my friends didn’t play doubles, and therefore weren’t making the trip.

But I did work part time in college, and I did have some limited savings, so I was prepared to make it happen. But right before I booked the trip something incredibly random happened, and to tell that story I have to give you a bit of background.

I mentioned earlier that I had no place at college to play In The Groove. And while this is true, I did have one option: driving 75 minutes to Frankenmuth, MI, where the Bavarian Inn Lodge had an amazing arcade with a brand new In The Groove 2 arcade cabinet.

I started making a weekly trip to Frankenmuth with a friend to get in as much In The Groove as I possibly could. At some point I got to know the manager there, who probably couldn’t help but be intrigued by a sweaty kid showing up to play the same game for hours at a time.

At some point I asked the manager to enable a setting on the machine that would make doubles mode cost the same as singles mode. By default, doubles mode on both ITG and DDR costs, well, double—which makes sense if you think about it, as you are taking up both pads when you play a game. The fact that doubles costs more is one big reason so few people played in doubles mode.

The manager enabled the setting for me, which saved me a ton of money considering the number of games I was playing. The next thing the manager did for me really surprised me though. After mentioning the tournament in Austin to them, they offered to have the arcade sponsor my trip to Austin to compete. All I had to do was wear the Lodge’s shirts during the tournament, and they would pay my way there and back.

From a financial perspective this makes zero sense for them—what does a random arcade in Michigan have to gain from me wearing their shirt for a not-especially-important tournament in Texas?—so I can only assume this person was doing me a massive favor, and for that I’m still very grateful.

(Note: Frankenmuth, Michigan really is a fun place to visit if you’re ever in the area, and dinners at the Bavarian Inn are amazing. Plus, the arcade is still there 🙂.)


I travelled to Austin in March of 2006 and I won the doubles national tournament pretty easily. The win wasn’t so much because of my skill, but because doubles wasn’t super popular, and some of the people that might’ve been able to challenge me didn’t make the trip.

I have a few videos and pictures from the event itself. Here’s one that’s from the semifinals.

And here’s a picture of me in front of the final bracket, wearing the shirt I was sponsored to wear.

I also remember really liking the picture below, and I think it was the featured picture on my MySpace for a long time.

Austin was fun, as I did get to see a few of my online friends, but it lacked the same atmosphere as Vegas, as doubles was far less popular.

Nevertheless, I do remember having a big sense of accomplishment, as it’s not everyday you travel to a national tournament and win first place.

As a prize I had the choice between $1,000 in cash and a trip to the world championship in Norway, and I picked the trip to Norway immediately.


In August of 2006, I boarded a plane in Detroit to travel to Oslo, Norway, on what would be the first time I traveled outside the United States in my life. (Technically I had been to Canada, but in Michigan we don’t count that.)

When I arrived in Oslo I realized I had no idea how to get around. This may sound weird to some of you, but I had never rode on public transportation in my life, as it essentially doesn’t exist in Michigan. Moreover, the Norwegian language isn’t the easiest language to parse, making signs next to impossible to read. Also, smart phones weren’t yet a thing, so I didn’t have Google Translate, nor any GPS to help me out.

What I did have were internet cafes (remember those?), which were things that still existed in 2006. I got on a web forum (remember those?) and sent a message that I was in Oslo and confused. Amazingly, a local Norwegian player I knew (hi Hagar 👋) happened to be across the street! What’s more, he let me stay at his place overnight, and took me to the tournament the next day.

That whole sequence of events is still the most incredible coincidence of my life. I’m sure I would’ve eventually found a place to stay, and somehow found my way to the tournament, but wow was it great to have amazingly nice locals to help. And it wasn’t just Hagar that went out of his way to help me; I have extremely fond memories of all the Norwegians I met throughout the trip, as they routinely helped a confused American that had no idea what he was doing.

The tournament

The tournament held over the next few days was odd for a few different reasons. First, there wasn’t just one tournament, but a whole series of them. They ran a series of tournaments to determine a European champion, and then after that an additional series of tournaments for the world championships.

I had four tournaments to compete in: DDR Singles, DDR Doubles, ITG Singles, and ITG Doubles. The top prize would be given to the ITG Singles tournament winner, and that person would walk away with a ~$10,000 USD arcade cabinet, just like in Vegas.

The other tournaments also had some non-trivial cash prizes though. And what’s more, there was an “Overall Champion” prize, which they would award to the person that did the best across all four tournaments using a point system, and the winner of that would receive 2,500 Euros.

What made the tournaments really strange though was the lack of competitors. LilQ, Damien, DukAmok, and I were the only Americans at the tournament, as we had won flights to attend. The other competitors were all Europeans, and mostly local.

The problem was that In The Groove had only recently started to appear in Europe, so there were very few experienced ITG European players—just because the continent hadn’t had access to the game for long. On top of this, there were almost no other players representing other regions of the world. Most importantly there were no Japanese players, because although Japan had some of the best DDR players in the world, In The Groove was not a thing there.

All this made for some fairly boring tournaments. I was the only person that won a trip to compete in doubles, and therefore I won the two doubles tournaments easily. The lone exception to the boredom was the ITG Singles final, which ended up being a rematch of the Vegas final between Damien and LilQ.

It all came down to a single song, which was the tensest moment I had seen in a machine-dancing tournament, especially with so much on the line. Damien won by two steps and took home the arcade cabinet. The video of the finals is, as best I can tell, the only video the tournament organizers took, and therefore it’s unfortunately the only video I have from the event.

As for me, since I won both doubles tournaments, and finished ~5th in both singles tournaments, I won the “Overall Champion” title, and the 2,500 Euros that came with it 🏆

This trophy didn’t fit in my suitcase well, so I had to carry it by hand the entire way home, leading to a number of fun airport and airplane conversations

It was a weird way to win, as I had won tournaments where my main doubles competitors weren’t present, and where the prize I won wasn’t even the main prize of the event, as Damien had took that home with the ITG Singles championship.

Nevertheless, it still felt pretty cool, and the prize money was an absurd amount of money for me at the time. I used the cash to buy a top-of-the-line Dell desktop computer, and that computer would be incredibly important to me as I was just about to start a career in software development. A career that would eventually lead to the creation of this blog 🙂

The present

Unfortunately I injured my back a few months after the trip to Norway, which made playing a game where you stomped on the ground less than a great idea. I would also be graduating from college soon, and a good chunk of my time went into finishing up my classes and looking for a job. Therefore, Norway is the end of my story when it comes to my dancing-game career.

As for the dancing games themselves, in 2005, Konami sued Roxor for infringing their various patents on dancing games. Shortly after the Norway tournament the two companies settled in court, and as part of the settlement Konami acquired the intellectual property rights to In The Groove. This decision marked the end of In The Groove, but their innovations would find their way into future Dance Dance Revolution games, both through more challenging songs, and the big worldwide tournaments Konami now holds.

For me personally, the experiences I had through Dance Dance Revolution and In The Groove fundamentally changed my life. Being able to travel the world to meet new people is something I honestly never thought I would do. Going to Vegas, Austin, and Norway showed me that there was a lot more to the world than Michigan, and suddenly I had a desire to visit places that I never thought I would’ve been able to before.

Getting really good at DDR also had a psychological effect on me as well. There’s an idea in psychology that I can’t remember the name of, but it goes something like: once you get really good at one thing, it makes it easier to get really good at other things. The idea is not that suddenly all other tasks get easier for you, but rather, that you view expert-level skills as obtainable, provided you put in the time and work to acquire those skills. I think this mentality has had a real effect on other aspects of my life, such as my career.

Overall though, Dance Dance Revolution was, and is, a ton of fun. To this day I listen to soundtracks from the games, and watch YouTube videos of current players out there setting new high scores and competing at tournaments around the world. It’s a game I’m proud to have been a part of, and to have been an “Overall Champion” at, even if that title has a few asterisks 🙂