London's Rhythm Game Community Dance Mat Arcade Soho
All photos: Aiyush Pachnanda

How Dance Arcade Games Sparked London's Unlikeliest Community

“I've met Bitcoin millionaires, world-class harmonica players, Korean models and people from all over the world through 'Pump'.”

It’s a Friday night in Soho. The city boys are lining up outside pubs and the PR huns are out on their feet in stilettos. A rickshaw shoots past blaring UK drill. This is your VICE war correspondent reporting live from London. 

But the real action isn’t here. This is kid’s stuff. The real action is in a dusty basement beneath a casino on Wardour Street: Las Vegas Arcade Soho


The name might conjure up images of sad dads in Hawaiian shirts and chain-smoking cougars, but I’m not here to gamble. I’m here to speak to the members of London’s rhythm game community – an eclectic group of freaks, geeks and misfits who meet up in the downstairs arcade every Friday and Saturday night. 

The online reviews for LVA Soho divide opinion. It’s a “super chill place!” according to rouselJ, but “boring and dumpy” says lenhardt99. They’re both liars.

Down here is more Tokyo than Sin City. The volume is somewhere between a gabber rave and a NASA launch. Countless neon screens duke it out for my attention. There are shoot ‘em ups, beat ‘em ups, retro racers, whack-a-moles, plucky duckies, candy cabinets, spin n’ wins, and – in a dark corner under the stairs – four dance machines.


Alisa Teterina is a blur of movement. She’s leaning against a metal bar facing a giant LCD screen; her feet are hitting a dozen glowing arrows a second; the word “perfect” is flashing across the screen (unless I specify otherwise, while Alisa plays, the word “perfect” is always flashing across the screen). 

She’s one of the UK’s top Pump It Up players. The game is the Korean equivalent of Japan’s Dance Dance Revolution, which was popular in UK arcades in the 90s and 00s. These days, she tells me between sips of water, Pump is where it’s at.


“I fell in love with the music. The game’s made by a Korean company so it has lots of K–pop, as well as J-music, EDM and D’n’B – genres young people want to hear.” 

Like many in the rhythm game community, Alisa has a global perspective. She was born in Kyrgyzstan and moved to London when she was young. “I've met people from all over the world here – East Asia, Middle East, South Africa, South America – so many different places.”

Alisa Teterina standing on a Dance Dance Revolution arcade game unit

Alisa Teterina

The 22-year-old is as much a dancer as she is a gamer. She grew up doing ballet, figure skating and street dance – and it shows. She’s got more rhythm than anyone you’ll see on a Friday night in Fabric.

Alisa certainly doesn’t fit the image of the arcade-goer that I had in my head – and that, Toby Nakhorn, a two decades-long rhythm game veteran, tells me – is part of the problem.

“Arcades get a lot of negative press,” he says. “A lot of us weren’t popular at school and got labelled as computer geeks. But we come here to socialise. We’re the geeks with street smarts!”

With his silver hair and wry smile, Toby is a likeable dude. In a parallel universe he finds fame as the Francis Bourgeois of rhythm gaming. As it is, he’s happy in his element. He regales me with tall tales about his arcade run-ins with Somali gangs and Chinese mobsters – the kind of stories you hear from 80s punks and strung-out skinheads. Down here, the spirit of old Soho is alive and well.

Rhythm game fan Toby Nakhorn stands in an arcade

Toby Nakhorn

Alisa is glistening with sweat as she steps off the dance mat and high-fives him. Pump is as much a workout as anything else. The players who aren’t here in cosplay are wearing joggers, base layers and gym gloves. One man in a yellow gym vest stands out more than most.

Patrick, 35, is a competitive bodybuilder and former Mr. Ireland winner. He’s got a shaved head and arms the size of my legs. He is, I’m assured, a gentle giant and one of the most popular players on the scene.

“For me, it’s a win-win,” he tells me as he laces his trainers. “I get to meet friends and exercise. It helps me to stay in shape between competitions.” Of course, there are challenges for a player of his size. “My shoulders are too big for the bar – this game wasn’t designed with bodybuilders in mind!”

Former Mr Ireland winner Patrick stands on a Pump arcade game


Patrick belongs to the older generation of players who came of age in the 90s and 00s. They’ve watched the scene boom and bust, and mourned the loss of some of its most important venues.

Take the London Trocadero, a hulking three story entertainment complex in the West End, that closed its doors in 2011. The old guard talks about “Troc” with a hushed reverence. It’s their Hacienda; their Shoom.

These days we play games at home – on Xboxes and PlayStations. Arcades like this one can’t survive on nostalgia alone (Toby makes the point that Gen Z don’t care about Space Invaders – and why would they?).


But it’s not all doom and gloom. Venues like Free Play City in Manor House and Chief Coffee in Turnham Green are dragging arcades into the 21st century, using Discord and TikTok, and games like Street Fighter V.  


“Arcades are so important to our tight-knit community,” Kaveh Rahimi, 33, tells me. “I've seen people on the spectrum with no friends or a voice blossom here. I've seen people who hate exercise transform their lives and stay fit. I've met Bitcoin millionaires, world-class harmonica players, Korean models, game industry professionals and people from all over the world through Pump. It’s changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”

Maybe it’s the sweating bodies or the warm glow of the machines, but the vibe down here reminds me of an intimate club or a hometown pub at Christmas – not something you'd usually associate with central London on a packed-out weekend. But community is community, however you dress it up.

Later, Toby sends me an email with an article he wrote in 2011 mourning the closure of the Trocadero. “In an arcade, anyone can make new friends and be accepted without judgement,” he writes. “I know I’ve made friends for life.”

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