Take a Bow Wow: Who Let the Dogs Dance?; Forget Dog Shows with Prizes for Grooming and Obedience, Now You Can Enter Your Pooch in a Boogieing Contest, Provided You Are Prepared to Strut Your Stuff with Them. Who Needs Crufts When You Can Have Canine Come Dancing?
Byline: Lianne Ludlow
It's a tense moment. Judith Swan and her partner have just exited the arena after a startling ninja dance routine. But Judith's not convinced.
`I'm not doing freestyle with her again - she goes in there and is so sub-standard. You're retired!' Judith shouts at her number two. The middle- aged housewife then stomps off. But her partner isn't feeling the pressure of this contest. In a rush of post-performance adrenaline `Baby' is busy doing twirls, spins and leaps for anyone who'll watch or hand her a doggie treat - the floozy.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have entered the astonishing world of competitive dog dancing. Or canine freestyle as the participants call it. Anyone who has ever owned a dog will understand their passion for a good boogie. Pop on a CD for a post-pub bop and how many times have you taken Bouncer's paws in your own to sway to the swelling harmonies of say, Groove is in the Heart by Deee-Lite? Exactly. And for most people that's where it ends - in the living room with the curtains drawn.
But not so for Judith and at least 50 mostly middle-aged women (plus one bloke and two teenage girls) at Catoctin Kennel Club, an hour's drive from Washington DC. They're here to take part in a dog dancing weekend, hosted by the World Canine Freestyle Organisation (WCFO).
According to Patie Ventre, the WCFO founder and president, these competitors are only the tip of the iceberg. `We have over 400 members and there are 3,000 active freestylers globally,' she says in her Brooklyn twang. `But there are thousands more dog dancers in the closet. Many haven't come out because they're nervous. Most dog people aren't flashy. You go to Crufts and dog obedience competitions and a lot of the women dress like men. In freestyle they have to dress up and be glitzy. It's not just their dog, it's them on display too.'
Today's North American National Contest opens with a singalong to The Star-Spangled Banner, accompanied by howls and barks from the dog crates at the back of the room, where Fido and co are kept between performances.
First up is Theresa Zuzworsky and her Irish setter Caitlin, doing a routine to the theme song from Hogan's Heroes. Like many of the owners here, bespectacled Theresa bears more than a passing resemblance to her pet and has coordinated herself to Caitlin's glossy brown coat with a brown jacket, trousers and cap.
Together they pace around the arena. Caitlin `marches', raising her paws in time to the music, before skillfully side-stepping her owner's feet. It's as intricate as international dressage with the occasional but beautifully timed backwards trot - a tricky manoeuvre if you've got four legs. It feels like watching an ice-skating routine, only Torvill and Dean were never this close. All the while Caitlin stares up at Mum with adoration.
`Have you ever seen an Irish setter so happy?' asks Patie. Arguably, I haven't. But I'd wager I've seen some looking quite chuffed in my local park.
The three female judges (this ain't the place to meet men) pore over their score sheets. Just like ice-skating, the pair get marks out of ten for technical merit and artistic impression, with more points for a technically demanding routine. Theresa and Caitlin have to wait an agonising ten minutes before their scores are placed up on the wall: high eights all round. An excellent opening.
However, I'm a little disappointed. Where's the `real' dancing? Not once in their two-minute display do Theresa and Caitlin clasp paw to hand or hold each other tightly muzzle to breast.
`Everyone thinks we hold paws and waltz,' says Patie, slightly testily, `but that would be ridiculous. We do a series of steps with our dogs - weaving between the legs, jumps, twists, spins. Any dog can dance if it loves its owner. Retrievers and collies are the easiest to train, but I've seen Dalmatians, even pit bulls and boxers dance. When you see a dog not known for high training perform to music, it takes your breath away.'
Next up is Diane Kowalaski from Pennsylvania. Like many of the competitors, she is a professional dog trainer. She's dancing to Michael Jackson's Bad with her Border collie Wes. This should be good. Diane, 41, is decked out in leather trousers, studded PVC biker jacket and, such is her attention to detail, she's even got a single Wacko Jacko white glove. Wes has a studded collar. It's a jaw-dropping performance - Diane does a moonwalk as, in perfect unison, Wes shuffles back on his tummy, doing his own canine version. They are clearly a partnership at the top of their game and many of the crowd, me included, have tears in their eyes. But Diane is gutted to discover she's been disqualified. Wes moonwalked over the statutory four feet away from Diane's side.
Dog dancing isn't just fun after all, there are rules. Another competitor to fall foul of them is 14-year-old Suzannah Skalsky. She's endured a nine-hour drive from Michigan with her mum Cindy to compete in the Junior Freestyle but is having `focus' problems with her terrier mix, Missy. You can feel her agony when just ten seconds into their cute country routine, Missy stops to scratch herself, then wanders about the ring eyeing up the crowds, oblivious to Suzannah's desperate pleas to heel. At the end, Suzannah dashes from the ring in tears, angrily dispatching Missy to her crate.
Sadly it gets worse when in a later performance Missy spectacularly pees in the middle of the arena. Nobody finds this amusing. Fouling, along with leaving the ring, dropping your leash and abusing the judges, is grounds for disqualification. Missy's `accident' manages to nobble the next few teams, whose dogs are so intrigued by her puddle they spend more time sniffing it than following their owner's choreographed steps.
`People take this really seriously,' says Beverley Blanchard, 32, who works with guide dogs for the blind and comes from the same club in Michigan as Suzannah. `They want people to say, "You're the best", but the biggest compliment would be, "I cried through your routine."' She is taking dance lessons as her terrier Sonic is a better natural mover than she is: `Well, I didn't want to let him down.'
On retiring to the competitors' specially designated `dog hotel' - a rough-around-the-edges motel on a highway in the nearby town of Frederick - I hope to see the athletes relax. I picture them chatting in the lobby, chilling around the bar, followed by a light supper of salad and Chappie before early to bed. But sadly the dogs aren't allowed to join their owners for dinner.
In room 202 WCFO canine freestyle competitor, judge and referee Anna Schloff, her husband and her four dogs Louie, Danny, Morgan and Lacey, all Labradors, are creating merry hell bouncing off the beds in the poky hotel room, which reeks of wet dog. `Well, when I arrived it smelt of cigarette smoke, I don't think this is any worse,' says Anna defensively, who has another three dogs at home in Michigan. She's brought sheets to cover the hotel linen and food and water bowls are in the bathroom in case of spillages. Anna, normally a school custodian, is dressed for refereeing today in a silver top and black trousers, already coated with hair de dog.
Downstairs over dinner people compare notes about the pain of backache from dancing with tiny dogs and the latest moves their four-legged partners are keen to include. One Cairn terrier has just learnt to high-five. Everyone orders steak, but only eats about a third before cutting it into pieces and asking for polystyrene cartons. `Treats for the dogs,' says Patie. `I only feed my Border collie Dancer fresh meat. I give him venison and smoked salmon specially imported from Alaska.'
The next morning, I'm woken at 6.30am by a chorus of yelping. I crawl out of bed to Dobermans and Dalmatians rampaging down the corridor and relieving themselves on the grassy verge outside the hotel. Their owners chase after them with small plastic bags to scoop the poop. Back at the contest, a drug scandal is brewing. One of the dogs has had a bad night with diarrhoea and his owner has plugged him up with Imodium. Does this count as doping? `The last thing I want is him going in the ring,' she wails. Bowel control isn't the only problem. Before each routine the owners must do a sound check so as not to offend their dogs' sensitive ears. What no Cliff Richard or Status Quo?
`My Norwegian elkhound Bear can't take a lot of bass,' says Marlene Schlichtig. `If your dog doesn't like it he'll drop his head and refuse to do any moves.'
Marlene, dressed in a home-made squaw outfit, has been practising for months, but Bear isn't sold. `Bear had his own ideas of moves, but I looked him in the eye and told him to knock it off. He had a bit of a pouting session but then we practised some steps and he got the opening one straight away. But we'll see. Anything can happen.'
To spooky, wailing music Marlene wafts her hands around and moves not unlike Neil Armstrong encountering the moon. Bear bounds along beside, twisting between her skirt tassles and dashing in dizzying circles about her ankles, obviously not totally in time with Marlene's slow, Indian mystic vibe. Though he does do a good bow at the end. As she leads Bear from the ring, Marlene shakes her head.
At the end of two days I've seen some staggering performances, including a momentous piece of choreography that saw four dogs and four middle-aged women all dancing in sailor suits to In the Navy by Village People.
But the star of the weekend is Mark Christe, 46, an unmarried construction manager from Pennsylvania, and the only male contestant. Mark and his golden retriever Ashley bring the house down with their take on a football warm-up routine to Rock'n'Roll by Gary Glitter. It's got star jumps and runs and he even gets Ashley to do press-ups and high-fives with him. Mark is crowned the North American National Champion 2001. For one so talented, an Olympic gold is surely only a matter of time. That's right, the dream of today's competitors is turning their canine's cha-chas, waltzs and fandangos into a legitimate, bonio-fido Olympic sport.
Patie is the driving force. `Dog dancing is as valid a sport as athletics or swimming, if not more so. We have to be tougher because we can't talk to our partners. Yeah, it's crazy, but I have a dream and we're going to make it happen.' And as long as there are doggie chocs, Bouncer and Eric aren't complaining.
Above: canine freestyle in action, including (centre) the press- ups that clinched the prize for Mark and Ashley and WCFO founder Patie (right) showing us how it's done; Clockwise from left: Marlene and Bear - `Bear had his own ideas of moves but I told him to knock it off'; Theresa and Irish setter Caitlin scored highly; but Michael Jackson lookalikes Diane and Wes were disqualified; winners Mark and Ashley Clockwise from top left: the sailor-suited team before their synchronised routine to In the Navy; everyone orders steak at dinner but only eats about a third before cutting it into pieces: `Treats for the dogs,' explains Patie; the stars themselves; one brave performer decides to go down the Fred and Ginger route Top: Terrier Sonic's natural rhythm bags him a rosette. Right: Anna's hotel room is barely big enough for her four Labradors and now reeks of wet dog. Far right: practice makes perfect for Bear and Marlene…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Take a Bow Wow: Who Let the Dogs Dance?; Forget Dog Shows with Prizes for Grooming and Obedience, Now You Can Enter Your Pooch in a Boogieing Contest, Provided You Are Prepared to Strut Your Stuff with Them. Who Needs Crufts When You Can Have Canine Come Dancing?. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Mirror (London, England). Publication date: January 5, 2002. Page number: 8. © 2009 MGN LTD. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.