The new sport of canine musical freestyle.

By Charlene Dunlap

THE AD WAS IN BIG, bold letters -- COME AND LEARN HOW TO DANCE WITH YOUR DOG. A vision appeared of myself as Ginger Rogers and Stoney as . . . . well, as his incredibly handsome self in tophat and bow tie. My imaginary headline read, POODLE AND PARTNER LIGHT UP BROADWAY STAGE!

But, back on earth, the seminar did sound like fun. A few weeks later, my three Standard Poodles (Stoney, April and Keila) accompanied me to a freestyle workshop taught by a retired professional dancer/choreographer who also trained dogs. Our instructor stated, "The objective of dancing with dogs is to showcase the dog to its best advantage in a creative and artistic manner." She said, "All of the handler's movements should be rhythmic and complement and enhance the dog's movements."

Several of us attended the seminar to learn how to design dance routines so that we could embellish our dog's nursing home and school visits. Others hoped that freestyle would be another fun sport in which to participate with their dog(s). Some had an eye on serious competition -- once freestyle becomes a competitive sport (scheduled for late 1996). Americans and Canadians are working toward uniformity in freestyle regulations so that "dancing with dogs" can truly become an international competitive sport. But, at this seminar, we were all novice freestylers and only the most dauntless among us dreamed of international competitions.

As we watched the video freestyle routines, our instructor gave us ideas about costume selection -- what ideas worked best and which to avoid. Handler's attire should be comfortable, tasteful and attractive. It should be in a color and style that complements the dog. Handlers should avoid wearing anything that distracts from their dog. She pointed out one handler (on the video) whose white shoes drew the audience's attention away from her black dog. She also cautioned us against wearing any eye-catching color item that might pull the audience's eye away from the dog.

AFTER WATCHING THE creativity and poise of the video performers, I felt a little intimidated (yet eager) to begin the floorwork. We all lined up, each with our dog in heel position. Our instructor demonstrated a musical passage with her own dog which consisted of straight line heeling broken with a different type circle every four steps. It looked easy. Stoney and I heeled forward four steps. I stood and led Stoney around me in a tight circle. We continued forward four more steps. We stopped and I again led Stoney around me in a tight circle -- but this time I had to turn in the opposite direction inside his circle. How many times did she say I was supposed to turn? "Focus on your dog," said our instructor. "Listen to the beat of the music." I can do this. Really. Four more steps. Now one more circle (or swizzle, as this one's called). I pivot on one foot as I bend down to lead Stoney as we turn together in yet another circle. Whoa! What music? What dog? Hello floor!

Then she showed us how to design the components of a routine. The routine begins with a split second pause -- a "picture" of the handler and dog presented to the audience. "Next," she said, "movements should be organized into interesting patterns. Direction, rhythmic variation, unique combinations of moves and different paces such as slow, fast, normal, as well as accents of phrasing should be considered to create interest and to prevent boredom and tedium in the choreography. Each presentation should show a variety of movements selected to show the dog to its best advantage." She told us about designing our space -- the "stage" that is our "canvas" with our movements: forward, side, back, diagonal and straight lines, circles, angles, serpentines.

Our instructor encouraged us to use all of the technical elements of heeling -- including heeling backwards, sideways, diagonally, in place, and right side heeling. Incorporate pivots, circles, and turns into the heeling. Use obedience cues such as Stand, Down, Sit, Front, Finish, Come and Jump in appropriate places. In addition, all types of unique movements, such as the dog weaving through legs, spinning, leaping, lifting paws, rolling over, and standing on rear legs make delightful variations. Most of the human partner's movements should be with the dog, but the dog can do movements without the handler -- such as spinning away, jumping over the handler's arms or legs, circling the handler, etc. Canada's regulations, however, encourage "creative handler movements.

"Finally," she said, "end all routines at center stage and "honor the judges." Step forward two steps, bow slightly while thanking the audience (for watching), count to four and get off the stage."

Some of us groaned about the complexity of it all, but our instructor assured us, "Creativity can be learned. Besides, the audience doesn't know when the performer makes a mistake. Just incorporate it into the routine or pretend it didn't happen."

WHEN PLANNING YOUR routine, there are several questions you need to answer:

a) What mood do I want to create in a freestyle presentation?

b) What things can my dog do -- obedience exercises, tricks, agility, etc.?

c) Which movements from these can I incorporate into a routine?

d) What are my dog's strengths -- energetic, athletic, attentive, etc.?

e) What weaknesses does my dog have -- distractible, sluggish, etc.?

f) What type music do I prefer? What type best suits my dog's energy level and personality -- is dog mellow or lively, elegant or comical?

g) What are my own strengths and weakness?

COORDINATE -- Working with your dog and the music, coordinate movements and timing in the routine. Learn to cue your dog slightly ahead of each move.

FINE TUNE -- Modify, as necessary, where and how you have placed the movements until you are comfortable that each combination of movements, pace changes, and unique behaviors (tricks) creates a harmonious musical picture of you and your dog.

LEARN SEGMENTS -- When you have created your entire routine, break it into segments and work on memorizing the routine with your dog one segment at a time starting with the last segment of the routine. When this is learned, train the next to the last segment.

MUSICAL CANINE FREESTYLE is still in its infancy. As a competitive sport, it will undoubtedly increase in technical difficulty and artistic creativity. As pure entertainment, a freestyle format can energize demonstrations at nursing homes, schools, and expos. Poodles, especially, have unique capabilities in the area of entertainment. Their athletic abilities, symbiotic natures and razzle-dazzle looks make them ideal partners for dancing stardom. Physically and visually they are natural show-stopping performers. For those who wish to spotlight their Poodle partner, there can be no more exciting place than in musical canine freestyle.

A variety of breeds participated in our workshop -- from small miniature Poodles to a very large Mastiff -- with the majority of dogs being in the medium to large category. Any dog, purebred or mixed breed, can participate in freestyle. Regardless of breed, the music for the routine should fit the personality and rhythm of the dog. The choreography should have a balance of technical elements (steps and maneuvers) and artistic elements (movement, space, rhythm and direction) presented in a creative format. The performance must show teamwork and rapport between the dog and the handler. Regulations for U.S. "competitive" freestyle are still being defined. One version is that performers have a minimum space of approximately 30' x 60' and must utilize at least 75 percent of that space. The performance should last at least two minutes but no more than five.

WE WATCHED NUMEROUS videotaped musical routines of both

Once you know the answers to these questions you are ready to start creating your routine:

IDENTIFY RHYTHM -- Find music that matches your dog's rhythm by trying different types of music while gaiting with your dog. Gaiting is the dog's most naturally fluid, effortless and balanced movement dictated by its structure, size and energy level. Our instructor showed us how her dog was barely noticeable when moving out of synch with the music but seemed to "fill the stage" when she gaited to the correct beat. Conformation enthusiasts will have already trained their eye for this perfect gait. Videotape your performance or have a knowledgeable observer watch for that perfect synchronized gait. You'll know it when you see it. Then select your music to fit the dog's rhythm.

SELECT MOVEMENTS -- Once music is selected, play around with your dog. Do turns and circles while heeling in time to the music. If you know any dance movements, see which ones can be adapted to having a dog as a partner. (Just remember it is the dog that people want to see perform.) Use your imagination. Have fun and play with all types of movements until you get a feel for what you want to incorporate into the routine. Match movements to type of music. In a Strauss waltz, you and your dog will make flowing, elegant lines on the "canvas of your stage." For a country hoedown, movements will be angular, quick and defined.

TEACH BEHAVIORS -- Teach your dog any new behaviors that you want in the routine and name them so you can verbally cue your dog while performing. (Yes, you CAN talk to your dog during a performance.

FRAME ROUTINE -- Pick several dynamic movements (or combination of movements) that you want in your routine. These are your framework. Decide the order you will present them -- where they best fit the music. Now you will want to frame each movement (or combination of movements) by putting less exciting moves and pace changes before and after as a transition to the next movement you want to emphasize. Think about what you will be doing to best show off your dog and keep the choreography simple.

CHOREOGRAPH -- As you plan the routine, walk through your combinations of movements holding your arm straight out from your side (as a stand-in for your dog), changing arms when your dog changes sides. This will give you an idea of two bodies in the space. Once you have a combination of movements that seems to work, practice it with your real dog to make sure it works for the dog's rhythm and placement needs. Freestyle is teamwork where you AND your dog arrive at what works and what needs changing.

movements that will be in our finished routine. I hope that eventually something will evolve that resembles a dance. But -- don't look for us on Broadway!

Canadian and American dog/handler teams. In addition to an individual handler with one dog, there were also routines for an individual handler with two dogs, two handlers, each with a dog and troops of handlers each with a dog.

Currently many freestyle participants are active obedience competitors and some routines consisted of heeling exercises set to music. In these routines the dogs were gorgeous and animated and the performance technically flawless. But, after a minute, I found my thoughts (and eyes) wandering off in search of diversity. Conversely, some handlers so emphasized their own skill as a "creative" dancer that I found it difficult to focus on their dog -- the part of the team I really wanted to see perform. The routines I found riveting were ones where the handler did very little creative dancing but all of her movements, which were synchronized to the music, cued the dog to do movements of its own. These routines were a continuous flow of the dog doing a variety of innovative movements complemented by a supportive handler whose costume and movements gave a flavor of the type of dance being presented.

LINK SEGMENTS -- Keep teaching and adding a new segment to the previously trained segment(s). If your routine is broken into six segments, train #6 first. When #6 is learned, train #5 (ending the training session with #6) and so on back, finally to segment #1. In this way the dog will always be going from weakness to strength, from material the dog is not yet sure of into well-learned material. The dog always ends by doing something it knows and is reinforced for doing.

STUDY RESULTS -- It is helpful in later phases of working on your routine to video your performance to see if you desire any other changes or fine-tuning. In addition, you may want to have a knowledgeable friend critique your performance.

THE MAGIC INGREDIENT -- Rapport shining between you and your dog can make any routine, regardless of technical merit, a pleasing and worthy performance.

Since attending the workshop, the Poodles and I have been playing around to music.  I'm amazed how much they enjoy moving to music!  We're incorporating fancy maneuvers into groups of other