Partners in Dance
By Lynn Franklin
Article and pictures used with permission
Article first appeared in the International Parti Poodle Gazette and subsequently received the
"Who Let the Dogs Out" pounded an irritating background noise as I slipped Sam’s glittery collar over his head. Behind me, middle-aged women scurried around, adding constant chatter to the throbbing beat. Beside me, my human partner Joan paused to rub her ankle.
"Are you okay?" I shouted.
Joan nodded and continued brushing the fourth member of our pairs team, a long-haired Miniature Dachshund named Tucker. Earlier that week, Joan had endured a cortisone shot in her severely swollen tendon so that we could drive 600 miles to compete in a national dog dancing competition. The shot fixed the tendon. Now if we could only find something to repair our nerves.
Mercifully, the music stopped. Scattered applause. Soon the soothing strains of "Silent Night" filled the air. Our turn on stage would come soon. Sam, sensing my tension, dropped into a play bow. Oh, no, please, not zoomies. Not now. My gosh, what was I doing here? Hadn’t I learned my lesson about Poodles and performing?
Anyone who lives with a Poodle understands that they are . . . creative. Charlie, my first Standard Poodle, did pirouettes while heeling, flying leaps at the end of recalls, zoomies around agility rings. I had always assumed his refusal to follow the rules stemmed from my inexperience as a trainer. That is, until Charlie died and Sam came along.
I know a lot more about dog training now than I did when Charlie came into my life. And at first this knowledge seemed to work with Sam. By ten weeks of age, he trotted happily in heel position, ears perked, tail wagging. By twelve weeks, he performed a flawless recall. By sixteen weeks, he had graduated from every puppy obedience class available - and was looking for new ways to entertain me. The play bow always made me laugh. Unfortunately, it was usually followed by
high-speed running around me – Poodle zoomies. If I wanted to perform with Sam, I needed an outlet for his creativity. That is when Charlene Dunlap talked me into training Sam for freestyle.
Canine musical freestyle, also known as dog dancing, began a dozen years ago in Canada before spreading to the U.S. and across the Atlantic. But,over-the-top costuming and lack of dog training almost killed it. Fortunately, Patie Ventre, a New York publicist, saw the possibilities. She founded a world-wide freestyle club whose rules were created – and modified – by members. Guidelines were drafted, judging was standardized, and competitions were organized. Slowly the World Canine Freestyle Organization – and dog dancing – began to gain respectability.
Each country brought a new element to freestyle. The British – most of whom came to freestyle from obedience – brought accuracy and precision. The Americans brought creativity. The Japanese brought flowing dance steps that harmonized with the dogs’ movements. Only a handful of people, however, have been able to combine all of these elements into a whole. One of these is Diane Kowalski. Diane was the first person to achieve advanced freestyle titles – first in pairs division (two people/two dogs), then in singles (one person/one dog).
It was Diane who showed me how to take Sam's creativity and channel it into innovative moves that would enhance our dance. While there are basic
behaviors used in freestyle routines – spin, weave, walk sideways and backwards – the most innovative moves are often created by the dogs themselves.
Diane showed me how to turn Sam’s desire to jump up on me into a reliable controlled dance move. First I lured him with a treat. After only a few times, I moved the treat to my pocket and used my hand to cue him to put his front paws on whatever I offered him – a cane, my arm, my back. Finally, I faded the hand cue so that he did the behavior totally on voice cues. In freestyle, verbal commands are critical because both dogs and people are judged equally on their dancing. Sam needed to be able to cue off of what I said instead of what I did with my arms, feet, and body.
As Sam’s muscles strengthened, he began walking with me, his front paws still settling on whatever I held out. Soon we could cha-cha to a Latin beat (Sam’s paws on my back), swing to rock-and-roll (Sam’s paws on my arm), sashay to ballroom (Sam’s paws on a cane). Other natural tendencies – Sam wrapping his paw around my leg, pirouettes, leaping and spinning – became part of his repertoire of dance moves. When put to music with classic freestyle moves, we began to look like we were dancing. Diane finally told us we were ready to compete.
Freestyle competitions, held all over the world, more resemble adult slumber parties than cut-throat sporting events. Competitors greet each other with hugs and smiles, applaud enthusiastically when things go well, commiserate when they do not. As in competitive ice skating, judges give two scores, one for technical, the other for artistic. At the beginner level, the routine must receive a minimum of 7.25 in both technical and artistic to qualify (a score of 10 being the highest). The higher levels – novice, intermediate, and advanced – require progressively higher scores to qualify. Each qualifying routine counts as a leg, and multiple legs are needed to receive a title.
Despite our lack of experience in competition, we began earning freestyle titles, gold medals, and squeaky toys for top performing dogs. It was not a smooth road. Occasionally, Sam's exuberance compelle him to zoom around the ring. But judges and fellow
competitors smiled, assuring me that freestyle was supposed to be fun and Sam was clearly enjoying it. Patie Ventre, the organization’s founder, urged me to stop standing there looking terrified when Sam did zoomies. "Dance with him," she said. "Let him be creative."
Diane had a more practical idea: "Let’s get Sam’s zoomies under control." We spent months teaching Sam to pay attention to me, no matter what else he was doing. This enabled me to quickly bring him back into the dance whenever he broke out into zoomie ecstasy. We kept Poodle creativity in mind as we choreographed, scattering Sam’s favorite behaviors throughout the routines – more leaping, twirling, paws up, bows. In other words, do not let that Poodle get bored! Slowly, painfully slowly, the zoomies disappeared from competition. That was when Sam and I turned to new challenges: We began working on a pairs routine – two people/two dogs – with Joan Rose and her longhaired Miniature Dachshund, Tucker.
While a few people had tried competing in the pairs division, Diane and her partner remain the only ones who have achieved the advanced title. The idea of working with another human/dog team sounded like great fun. And would it not be a nice tribute to Diane to have two of her long-time students become the second pairs team to win an advanced title? We figured pairs would be maybe twice as difficult as singles. We figured wrong. It was at least four times as hard.
At first, choreographing for the four of us was fun. We wanted to highlight the dogs’ relationship, so we inserted their favorite behaviors into a medley of 1950s songs.
Tucker rode his skateboard under Sam. Sam leaped over Tucker and Joan. Sam and Tucker jumped through
"Yes, Sam! Yes, yes, yes!"
And so it went with each move in the routine, experimenting to find ways for the dogs to synchronize their moves.
When we were not working the dogs, Joan and I needed to coordinate our own movements. What dance step are we using? Do we begin on the left or right foot? What are our hands doing? Our heads? It was like learning to walk all over again.
Finally, we entered our first competition, a quiet show with a small entry. With only an occasional misstep, the dogs earned their beginner pairs title. Before the next show, we
tweaked the choreography. The dogs again performed beautifully, and we earned two legs toward our novice title. But that perfect combination of flow, precision, and creativity still eluded us. With Diane’s help, we again reworked the routine.
So here we were preparing to present the latest version at the biggest show of the year, the 2005 Nationals. And Sam was doing a play bow. If he broke into zoomies, not only my hard work but Joan’s and Tucker’s would be ruined. Tongue hanging out, Sam spun, bowed again, and wagged his tail. "He’s telling you to relax," Diane whispered in my ear. I started laughing. Sam was right. It was time to go out there and have fun.
As Tucker rode his skateboard underneath Sam, I was vaguely aware of cheering from the audience. My own eyes, however, were on my grinning Poodle. Spinning out of a paws-up behavior, he trotted with a high prance to the beat of the music. We pivoted into the side move, Sam and Tucker perfectly lined up. More cheering. The rest of the routine passed in a blur, Sam flying over Joan and Tucker, joining Tucker to jump through the hoop, trotting on his own in a fast circle around Joan and Tucker, holding his paw wrap while Tucker walked underneath him, following behind me in a wide pattern to end suddenly with Sam standing with his feet on my arm. And, no zoomies! .
Laughing, I hugged Sam. Gradually, I became aware that the applause was continuing. As we left the ring, Diane hugged us with tears in her eyes. Patie stood a few feet away, grinning. Then we were surrounded as audience members told us we had received a standing ovation. I had not even noticed. My eyes had been only for Sam, my creative Poodle, who had danced his heart out.
We earned our novice title that weekend, scoring in the top one percent and winning the pairs division – making us the 2005 National Pairs champions. Two months later, we became the second pairs team to ever receive an intermediate title. We are now working on our advanced pairs routine, a dramatic jazz number in which the two dogs dance every move together.
And what if the zoomies return? I will just keep dancing with my Poodle.
Tucker, Joan, Lynn, and Sam
a hula hoop together. The problems began when we tried to tie all of the moves into a flowing dance. Sam’s long legs enabled him to heel faster than Tucker. Tucker’s short legs allowed him to move sideways faster than Sam. How would we ever make this routine look synchronized?
Diane gave us a series of exercises to teach the dogs to work together. With the dogs on leash and standing between us, we walked at a pace that forced Tucker to speed up and Sam to slow down. The first time across the floor Sam tried to forge ahead. I encouraged him to slow down. We turned and started back across the floor. Halfway across, Sam suddenly looked down at Tucker, adapted his stride to match the little Dachshund’s, then looked up at me with a question in his eyes.