The grace of a ballerina… the coordination of a hip-hop dancer and the dazzle of performance artist. Shake a leg, discover the dancer within and boogie your way to a healthy exercise habit. DanceOff! combines the best features of a competitive video game, traditional dance instruction and fitness videos.

Our team began with the vague idea of virtual sport instruction. We wanted to take advantage of advances in home video game system wireless technology which allows these games to sense player movement in three dimensions. While our team members have experienced this technology playing Wii games, we were captivated by the new capabilities of Microsoft’s Project Natal (see introduction video for PN capabilities at which provides much of the same functionality without the need for controllers. Project Natal’s advanced gesture recognition can sense whole-body movement, making it perfect for instruction that replicates the experience of a live coach providing individualized player feedback for physical activity, such as individual sports or dancing. We chose dance instruction since it’s a fun extension of currently popular dance games like Dance, Dance Revolution and it exploits a cultural emphasis on exercise as a solution to the US obesity epidemic. Dance has long been recognized as a fun form of exercise that is appropriate for all ages (1, 2 ).

Player uses their whole body. Click to view more! Image:

Our game will focus on social dance instruction – both partner dances, such as swing, lindy, disco or waltz, and solo dances, such as line dancing and choreography from popular music videos (e.g.,Beyonce, Put a Ring on It). The instructional goal is to teach dancers the mechanics of individual dances and to build their confidence in doing the dance, so they feel comfortable doing these dances in a social setting, such as a party or a club. The “game” mode of the game allows dancers to use game functionality to compete in competitive dance contests with their friends (either in the same location or networked virtually).

There are three game modes:

  1. Instruction Mode – this mode functions similarly to traditional dance videos. Instructors will break down and demonstrate dance moves and then ask dancers to follow along.
  2. Virtual Coach Mode – this mode takes advantage of Project Natal’s controller-free sensors and is able to provide both solo and dance pairs with step by step feedback on their performance.
  3. DanceOff! Mode – this mode also uses Project Natal’s sensors but instead of providing dancers with feedback, it uses the same technology to score their technical proficiency, allowing individuals and pairs to track their progress and to compete with other dancers in a DanceOff!

Instructional Objective

  • Given videos/examples, verbal instruction and a virtual dance coach, DanceOff! will teach dancers how to to complete the dance steps and choreography for many popular solo dances and partner dances.
  • Given virtual coaching and formal practice, DanceOff! will build dancers’ confidence and help them play the game – and compete against others – with confidence.


DanceOff! appeals to all ages and levels of dance experience. Whether you are a novice to the dance floor or a trained artist, you control your DanceOff! studio. Work with your dance coach and go as fast or slow as you need, crank up the volume and compete with a friend, or perform for yourself and get personalized assessment. DanceOff! give the learner a new feeling of dance appreciation.

DanceOff! is intended to appeal to two audiences:

  1. Learners who are familiar with video game dance games such as DDR or CyberCoach, (popular in some school phys ed departments). These games tend to focus on energetic dances with complicated footwork (supported by dance pad sensors). These audiences may not be familiar with traditional social dances, especially partner dances such as swing, ballroom or salsa.
  2. Learners who are familiar with traditional approaches to social dance instruction such as video and live instruction (explained below). These audiences are generally more familiar with social dances that they may have encountered at parties or social events.

Context of Use

DanceOff! may be played in three different modes which affect how many people may play at one time:

  1. In Instruction Mode, the game could be played by up to 15 people. This mode would require a method to project the video and play the audio so the entire group could watch/listen and follow along.
  2. In Virtual Coach mode, the game could only be played by one solo dancer or a pair.
  3. In DanceOff! mode, the game could only be played by one solo dancer or a pair at one time.

Regardless of whether DanceOff! is played in a living room, dorm room, dance floor or other social setting, the game requires a wide area free of objects in front of the television/screen to make sure that the dancers have plenty of room to move without hurting themselves or bumping into objects or each other. Dancers should be able to easily see the screen and hear the music and audio. The Virtual Coach and DanceOff! modes use the same functionality to evaluate dancer performance by calculating the correct movements from skeletal tracking, as shown in the demo video. To use these modes, dancers must be within the required sensory range (usually within 5 feet of the sensors).


DanceOff! is both a single and multi-dancer game: for example, a single dancer can learn the dance from the Thriller video, receive feedback on how well they performance the dance (using Virtual Coach Mode), compete against his friend (who are either in the room with him or connected virtually). He can even create a video of himself dancing the Michael Jackson role in the music video and load that to YouTube or the DanceOff! website with the score. Partners can access any of this functionality for partner dances.

While instruction may be accessed for as much or as little time as the dancers wish, instruction modules are organized into 10 minute chunks. To learn “swing dancing”, for instance, there are 38 10-minute modules. The number of modules per dance depends on the complexity of the dance. Virtual Coach and DanceOff! modes can be similarly customized depending on how many rounds players wish to compete or how long they wish to dance.

DanceOff! comes with 22 partner dances and 15 solo dances (most of them based off popular music videos, which are included, too). For each of these dances, there are instructional modules (with demonstration and dance step breakdowns) and hours of additional practice music for each dance type (except the music video dances, which are limited to the associated video music). Dancers may purchase and download additional instructional (and Virtual Coach/DanceOff! mode) modules from the DanceOff! website. For instance, the most popular dance music videos from this year will be added to download within a month or two (to capitalize on a “hot” dance). Partner dances, e.g., Lindy Hop, will also be available for purchase. When dancers download a new dance, they are purchasing both the instructional modules and the criteria the Virtual Coach/Judge will be using to evaluate the quality of the dance in competition mode.

The game will require a XBox 360 game console, Project Natal console, and television with audio. Players can download directly to the Project Natal console or purchase the software at any major retailer.

Object of the Game

  1. Instruction mode: The goal is to become more proficient and confident in learning the dance in preparation for competition (DanceOff!) mode.
  2. Virtual Coach mode: In this mode, the objective of the game is to improve and increase your rating compared to your own previous performance.
  3. DanceOff! mode: In this mode, the object of the game is to achieve a higher score than the opposing dancer (or partner team) as calculated by the Virtual Coach.

References and Competing Products

We explored the ways people can become proficient in doing different partner and non-partner social dances:

Video Instruction*

Whether viewed or downloaded on a computer or played on a television, video instruction is a popular way to learn social dances. These methods are characterized by individual videos or video series like Learn and Master Ballroom Dancing. It appears the most effective video teaching systems break down a dance into the basic steps, and (in the case of partner dances) show the leader (male) part, the follower (female) part, and then both parts together. Many of these programs also include additional music appropriate to practice the dances after initial instruction. Videos are enhanced by simple backgrounds and strong video techniques, such as a combination of close and wide angles and split screens. Some programs like Learn and Master include online support, as a way of providing individualized support. A simple online search turns up sites such as or, each of which use similar video approaches.

YouTube, of course, offers a wealth of video dance instruction, as well. Many professional dance instruction companies like offer previews of their content on YouTube and there are hundreds of amateur instructional videos for specific dances, for example, “How to dance like Michael Jackson “(1, 2). The benefits of video instruction are timeliness and privacy. Want to learn to dance at 2am? Fire up the computer and download some videos. Embarrassed by your two left feet? Learn and practice in the privacy of your living room. This method of instruction is also less expensive than private or group lessons, with videos ranging from free to less than $200 for a full course of dance-specific instructional videos, music, printed aids and online support.

There are two main limitations to video instruction. First, it’s largely dependent on the quality of the production and instruction. The examples must be easy to see clearly and the instruction must effectively break the dance down into parts and allow learners to practice and master each part before moving on and putting the entire dance together. Second, video instruction doesn’t allow for individualized feedback and support. For the student who is struggling with a specific step or sequence, they are stuck trying to figure it out alone.

*Before videos, of course, people used to buy records that came with //printed dance instruction//. Since the advent of inexpensive and accessible video, however, printed dance instruction has fallen out of favor.

Live Instruction

For true interactivity and feedback, most learners turn to live dance instruction, either in groups, with partners or individually. Live instruction is characterized by a dance floor (in a studio, in someone’s home, really anywhere) and an instructor, who provides instruction (demonstrating and describing steps, offering hints and tips, and providing real-time feedback). Many people are familiar with this model from hearing about the ubiquitous Arthur Murray Dance Studios. There are many outlets for live dance instruction right here in San Diego with companies like Starlight or At Time To Dance.

The limitations of live instruction are the timeliness and cost – it must be scheduled and it is generally more expensive than video instruction. In addition, it’s not always the most comfortable method for the shy. Some of these drawbacks may be addressed by accessing the right type of live instruction for the learner – whether one-on-one (more costly but more private) or group (less costly but less private). Another limitation in group classes, is the difficulty of observing and producing feedback to many students at once (see this article).

Informal/Learning by Doing

Finally, many people learn to dance informally, by finding someone who knows how who will share with them or by watching others. You can show up the San Diego Women’s Club on Wednesday nights for Firehouse Swing and find others who are willing to show you how. The benefits of this method are similar to live instruction, though the quality of instruction is variable and the feedback may be less reliable and formal.

Dancing-themed Video Games

It is possible to learn non-partner dances using video dancing games like Dance, Dance Revolution or Wii Fit dancing games. These games generally use some type of electronic game mat, or the Wii Remote or Balance Board that senses and provides feedback (scoring or coaching) based on the player’s foot and arm movements. The emphasis in these games is competition, speed and variability; for example, challenging players with sophisticated and unexpected combination. These games do not emphasize instruction or technique that would allow the learner to recreate their dance moves off of the game mat. In addition, dancing-themed video games are solely focused on non-partner dances – there are no similar games or feedback-based instruction that focuses on partner dances, such as salsa, ballroom, cha-cha, foxtrot, or swing.

How our research informed the features of our game: While there are many methods of social dance instruction, there isn’t a consensus about the one best approach or method to teach individuals social dances. All the methods we researched, however, emphasized (or at least try to address the lack of) the need for:

  • Clear demonstration of dance steps and breaking down dances into smaller parts or chunks
  • Providing learners with the opportunity to practice and master shorter sequences before putting entire dances together· Separating roles (e.g., leader and follower) for partner dances
  • Frequent and individualized feedback and correction during practice
  • Frequent practice as the route to mastery

The limited amount of academic research on this topic supports this analysis. This article about teaching dance in higher education highlights the importance of knowledgeable instructors with a creative approach and an understanding of basic teaching techniques. Strong instructor characteristics include a love of movement and teaching, a supportive attitude, clear communication, a focus beyond technique, and presenting information and skills in multiple ways.

Design Details for the DanceOff! Mode

Universal Elements

The overall look and feel of the game is cartoonish (artistic drawings rather than realistic photo graphics) for several reasons:

  • Photorealistic graphics require more intensive 3D graphics development, making game development cost-prohibitive
  • A cartoonish look is be more inviting for gamers of all ages
  • Cartoonish graphics are more future-proof, since they won’t be in direct comparison to the latest, cutting-edge graphics used in newer games
  • Allows for use of simplified avatar instead of showing a live video of the dancers

Specific Elements

Setting up the and using the Dance Profile: When an unrecognized face is registered via Project Natal, the dancer is asked to create a new dancer profile page. From the profile page, the dancer creates an avatar utilizing the Avatar Creation tool, much like the Mii creation tool for the Nintendo Wii. The dancer profile stores the history of personal best scores, time spent in the game, favorite song, favorite type of dance, and dances mastered. If the dancer chooses not to save a profile, a generic avatar is chosen to represent the dancer in the game.

The dancer’s profile gives the game information to make smart recommendations for additional content. The dancer’s favorite song or type of dance, for instance, will prompt suggestions for new dances or music (available for download for a nominal fee). By keeping track of dances mastered, the game allows the dancer to filter potential opponents in the networked DanceOff! mode so oppponents are more evenly matched with opponents of like skill.

Customization: There are several variables in DanceOff! that the dancer can manipulate to customize the gaming experience. In the Virtual Coach mode, the dancer can manipulate the frequency of feedback given by the coach and whether to show feedback captions in addition to the audio. In the DanceOff! mode, the player can choose to go through the dance with the Virtual Coach showing the dance on screen (novice mode) or without (expert mode). In all modes, the dancer will be able to manipulate the tempo of the music to certain degree, slowing down or speeding up the beats.

Game Display: Output variables are displayed during the game to inform and give feedback to the dancer. In the Virtual Coach mode, dance moves names are displayed to organize dance step sequences into more management chunks. The gamer’s movement captured by Project Natal appears on screen as an outline of the avatar, allowing the dancer to see how their movement lines up to the Virtual Coach’s instructions. In DanceOff! mode, the reaction of three judges in three facets of the dance (rhythm, movement, and overall) appears as a thumbs up, sideways or down icon to give immediate feedback for the dance. The audience’s reaction to the dance is highlighted on both sides of the screen noted as red (boos), yellow (sparse applause), or green (loud applause and cheers) In addition, the sound effects from the audience serve to give feedback to the dancer – some dances would have a more subdued auditory response, such as the ballroom dances, and others, like the urban underground dancing stage, would have more vociferous crowd sound effects. The top of the screen prominently displays the progress of the song with the time left on the song.

Sample Screens:

Prototype Screens for DanceOff!, Designed by John Park Click to view more screen examples

Technical Elements

DanceOff! Will be developed solely for the Microsoft Xbox 360 system with the Project Natal add-on. While Microsoft has released XNA Game Studio with the XNA Framework for novice game makers to create games using C#, DanceOff! requires more sophisticated and customized programming to achieve its gaming goals. To author the full retail game, the development studio or the publisher will need to be approved by Microsoft and pay a developer’s fee to obtain the Xbox 360 development kit. Development of DanceOff! will require utilization of both OpenGLand DirectXto access the available APIs as well as enable potential porting of the game to other consoles in the future.

At the time of development, different game engines will be evaluated (for a list of open source and commercial game engines available on the market, check out to weigh the benefits of purchasing a license for a proprietary game engine versus developing one specifically for the game. While an open source game engine is an option, proprietary game engines are recommended due to lack of robust support and documentation. The programming language used for the development of DanceOff! will depend on the game engine chosen; however, if the game engine is built from scratch, C or C++ is recommended over C# due to faster execution time. In addition, 3D modeling software such as Autodesk Maya or 3ds Max will be used to create the 3D graphics for the game.

Instead of relying on video cut scenes for instruction, DanceOff! will render the animations on the fly from the pre-set programming instructions. This will reduce the total size of the game in addition to size of the saved music video files. The programmed instructions are also utilized to calculate the score for the dancer as it allows the game to calculate how closely the dancer’s movement is to the dance from captured motion. During the development of the game, all remixed music used in DanceOff! will need to be analyzed to note the timing of different dance movement for the Instruction Mode and Virtual Coach Mode. For the free-style dances, the game will calculate from the acoustic wave pattern to note where the beats are, which can be compared to the motion capture from the dancers.

When saving the game state, the data can be written either to the internal hard drive of Project Natal or a removable disk drive connected to the USB port. Each dancer will have his or her own profile, which will save the progress (completed dance instructions), high score, customizations (avatar), and saved music videos.

Motivational Issues

While we believe the basic premise of our game – learning dances and competing in dance contests – is fun and engaging, we made many accommodations and adjustments to our game design based on the principles of individual and interpersonal motivation, as described by Malone and Lepper in Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations. Our goal was to design a game that not only appealed to those who love to dance but also to those who don’t feel confident on the dance floor.

Individual Motivations: Malone and Lepper describe individual motivations as those that stimulate individual interest on the part of an individual and may be present even if a player is playing alone. This was relevant for us because, while this game may be played in groups, there is a DanceOff! mode in which players can play alone.

The individual intrinsic motivators described by Malone and Lepper that are pertinent to DanceOff! are Challenge, Control (choice and power) and Fantasy.

According to Making Learning Fun, learners prefer “an optimal level of challenge” (10) which include “proximal” or near-term goals, uncertain outcomes and frequent, clear, constructive and encouraging feedback. We have built these qualities into our game by:

  • Employing user-testing to make sure DanceOff! levels are both challenging and attainable to a variety of dancers (both novices and more experienced dancers).
  • Assigning points to dance moves and calculating/displaying cumulative points during play so dancers can see their progress toward the goal (either their previous score or their competitor’s score).
  • Using the virtual DanceOff! Coach to provide clear and encouraging feedback throughout the dance (if this feature is turned on). Dancers can also review feedback at the end of their dance turn. All feedback is positioned to be encouraging and positive.

Control is built in by allowing dancers to choose whether they wish to compete against themselves or against others, they choose the dances they want to do, they can take a virtual class to learn the dance before the DanceOff! or attempt to follow the virtual Coach, they can get their feedback during the practice/game or at the end. The terms of the game are flexible enough that it will satisfy the serious dancer, who wants to use the game to build their skills or the party-player who just wants to have fun without practicing and sees the game as a fun diversion.

Fantasy is the final individual motivation component. The game builds in fantasy by encouraging the dancer to imagine him or herself in the scene projected on the screen. Dances based on music videos are themed like the video, with an audience, virtual coach and judges that reflect the video theme. For example, in the “Thriller” dance,the virtual coach looks like Michael Jackson and the audience is comprised of zombies. Similarly, partner ballroom dances are themed like a ballroom with elegantly dressed audience members and judges. Music, obviously, plays a role in the fantasy element of the game – all music is recorded/mixed in high definition audio and performed by the original artists.

Interpersonal Motivations: Malone and Lepper describe interpersonal motivations as the “intrinsic motivations that would not be present in the absence of other people” (242). Since DanceOff! is largely a social game – dancers complete against other dancers, either alone or in pairs – interpersonal aspects of the game are important. The interpersonal motivators relevant to DanceOff! are Cooperation and Competition and Recognition.

Cooperation and Competition are important characteristics of the DanceOff! design. Dancers cooperate in the partner mode, working together to reach their goals (a higher score, a winning score) and compete against other players in both solo and partner dancing. Both the cooperation and the competition are focused on achieving the goal of the game – accruing points from dancing accurately. The Recognition inherent in this game comes from the dancers “efforts ad accomplishments recognize dand appreciated by others” (244). Throughout the competition, dancers who are accurate are cheered on and applauded by the audience and the judges. The winning dancer(s) is cheered and congratulated at the end and their avatars have the chance to celebrate virtually. Winners names and scores are tracked – either within the game or on the DanceOff! website. In addition, dancers may upload videos of themselves to the DanceOff! Website to share with others and be recognized for their dancing acumen.

Design Process

Inspired by advances in home videogame system wireless technology, the DanceOff! eGame Project began with a vague idea of creating a virtual sport instruction game. While our team members have experienced playing Wii games we desired to design a game around the prototypes of Microsoft’s Project Natal. The promotional online videos of Project Natal, demonstrated its functions and features to deliver a conceptual understanding of how the technology can be utilized. Further researching the backend of the systems ability enhanced the teams idea of developing a gesture recognition eGame that can support more sophisticated feedback on a player’s movements, making it perfect for sports instruction.

We began toying around with various sport themes, including soccer and tennis, but chose dance instruction because it seemed like a fun extension of currently popular dance games such as Dance, Dance Revolution, pop culture televisions shows like Dancing With the Stars, and its accessibility to a wide audience (e.g. appeals to male and female, and various age groups from six to sixty). Background information to identify the “need” of the game came from several locations including a discussion among teammates about their personal connection to dance. Teammates provided comments like, “I wish I knew how to move like Beyonce” or “How cool would it be to have a dance-off with someone in another country?” Additional online research on competing products supports our analysis that while there are many methods of social dance instruction, there isn’t a consensus about the one best approach or method to teach individuals social dances. Please see the section above, References and Competing Products, for a list of the needs. Class literature including, Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations and the text The Art of Game Design, were also referenced to gather information about motivational issues and design.

We presented our eGame project scope to several peers to get their feedback. The majority provided positive comments describing the excitement of being freed from a game controller and the value of receiving performance feedback. Peers felt these two elements would increase their participation level beyond the traditional experiences of “just simply playing”. One person commented on the design’s accessibility by asking if a person in a wheelchair or others with disabilities could play. Although this is not addressed in our initial design, this issue should be addressed in the game prototype.

During the design process, our team tried to expand our thinking beyond traditioal dance games to envision something truly new and innovative. Because Project Natal is still in its prototype phases, and only sample of its functions are available, we were able to be creative with how we pieced Project Natal’s features together to design DanceOff!. Our research and literature reviews supported the team’s design details and empowered us to make confident design specifications.

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