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?

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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. …