I was simultaneously flattered and horrified that he thought of me when he saw the article.
Nonetheless, I read beyond the (admittedly hilarious) lead, and thought it appropriate to report the following pertinent facts:
1. Blame Canada.
The sport, if one can refer to it as such, began in Canada in the 1980s.
2. Blame New York.
Or more appropriately, one Patie Ventre, a New Yorker who started the World Canine Freestyle Organization from Brooklyn in 1999.
3. Freestyle is "a middle-aged-women-in-dog-sports phenomenon."
7,500 United States dog freestylers, the overwhelming majority of whom are middle-aged women, can be found in clusters all over the country. A minority enter competitions, either vying on video or in national live events.
4. It's not swimming.
Some are advocating the label "K-9 dance sport" instead.
5. There's no such thing as couple dancing in dog dancing.
Hands and paws are not usually clasped. The dogs follow verbal or hand commands to twirl and circle, weave in and out of the handler's legs to form figure eights, do side steps and kicks or jumps on hind legs. The dirty, if open, secret is that dancing dogs are an illusion: the music is chosen to fit a dog's gait, or the spring in its step, or its best tricks, not the other way around.
6. There are online support groups.
And there are also plans to begin the (online) International Canine Freestyle College by early 2006.
7. The dog determines the song.
Dogs and their handlers walk in a circle, while measuring the dog's natural rhythm by beats per minute. The handlers then choose the music from a book that lists songs by tempo.
8. It provides focus for canine delinquents.
Kathy Morris, co-owner of Jump Start, said that freestyle complements other dog activities and can work wonders for some dogs that regularly misbehave.
9. Costumes are optional.
To maintain decorum, freestyle competitions keep the costuming of the animals to a minimum, though the handler can get away with dressing up like Charlie Chaplin for theatrical effect.
10. New steps! New steps!
The Canine Freestyle Federation and the Musical Dog Sport Association have philosophical differences over freestyle moves and issues like attire and how much dancing the humans should do.
The article is a great read. (I've included it below and highlighted my favorite bits.)
Some final thoughts ...
A. Reason 459 for my divorce: My ex would sometimes clasp Casey's paws and 'dance' until Casey, snorting and indignant, freed himself and ran to me.
B. See the canines in action at www.worldcaninefreestyle.org or http://www.k9-freestylers.com/
C. Get support at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/K9DanceSport/.
D. I wonder if these ladies have ever choreographed a routine to "Atomic Dog."
Fetch! Roll Over! Heel! Now, Let's Dance!
By MIREYA NAVARRO
YORBA LINDA, Calif.
GRETCHEN MAVROVOUNIOTIS considered the theme songs from "Ghostbusters" and "Footloose" before settling on "Can't Stop the Music" by the Village People. The disco beat, she said, is the best for her dance partner, since it best shows off his forward weave and counterclockwise turns.
"What I like," she said, "is fast-paced music to keep up his enthusiasm, so he doesn't get bored and just plod along. I also look for music where you have transitions, where you can put in some of the flashier moves, like back up, turn around and back through my legs."
Ms. Mavrovouniotis, you see, dances with her dog. In the world of canine sports and shows, what is formally known as freestyle dancing does not rise to the level of performance usually sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, which regards freestyle as entertainment.
"A lot of our performance events," said Daisy Okas, a spokeswoman for the club, "are geared to what the dog was originally bred to do." That would be things like herding and hunting, not dancing to disco music in a sparkly collar.
But the canine freestyle movement rocks on, despite doubters and deriders, and the fact that the average dog owner may never have heard of it. Originally developed in Canada in the 1980's, and then transplanted to the United States in the 1990's, freestyle, inspired by musical equine dressage, occupies only a small niche in the world of dog activities: about 7,500 dog owners in the United States who compete, take classes for fun or perform in demonstration and charity events, estimated Patie Ventre, who started the World Canine Freestyle Organization, from Brooklyn in 1999.
Today dog freestylers, the overwhelming majority of whom are middle-aged women, can be found in clusters all over the country, organizing clubs with dozens of members or just a handful, to learn moves from one another. Some take classes or invite experts from other cities for workshops and seminars. They follow up by watching training videos. A minority enter competitions, which are held each year, either vying on video or in national live events held across the country.
Ms. Ventre, whose group stages international freestyle competitions patterned after the judging and scoring of figure skating, so believes in the athletic skills required by freestyle that she envisions it, someday, as an Olympic sport.
"The teams can capture you exactly like Torvill and Dean," she said, referring to the British ice dancing pair and Olympic gold medalists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. "That's the goal."
But while Ms. Ventre, 62, and Dancer, her border collie, may bring tears to the eyes of the audience with their waltz rendition of "Silent Night," (a video can be viewed at www.worldcaninefreestyle.org), there's no such thing as couple dancing in dog dancing; hands and paws are not usually clasped.
Instead the dogs follow verbal or hand commands to twirl and circle, weave in and out of the handler's legs to form figure eights, do side steps and kicks or jumps on hind legs. They also sometimes lose interest and wander off to sniff around. (A no-no in competition, just like excessive barking.)
The dirty, if open, secret is that dancing dogs are an illusion: the music is chosen to fit a dog's gait, or the spring in its step, or its best tricks, not the other way around. But when music and choreography are well matched, fans say, watching the connection between dog and person, and that final bow or dramatic leap into the handler's arms, can be an emotional experience.
The driving force behind freestyle, of course, is the dancing dog owner, a human breed capable of devoting huge amounts of hours, and kibble, to perfecting a synchronized step, and of explaining this pastime with a straight face.
"It's more like modern dance than ballroom dancing," said Ms. Mavrovouniotis, 43. "It's interpretative dance to music."
Ms. Mavrovouniotis, an engineer, said she had never danced much herself before she sampled a freestyle class about two years ago at the dog school where her two mixed-breed dogs, Apollon and Poseidon, took classes in manners and agility. She noticed that the freestyle seemed to suit them; Apollon appeared to relax around other dogs and Poseidon found an alternative to fetching, his first love.
Soon she was participating in video competitions and earning points for titles in the categories based on technical merit and artistic impression. Now she competes only with Poseidon because Apollon has a bad back.
The pair's next test is a video competition whose deadline is Dec. 31, sponsored by the World Canine Freestyle Organization, which is the largest group, with 1,000 members in the United States and 15 other countries. After spending about two months training Poseidon on his routine at her Irvine home in 15-minute daily increments, she performed for the video this week wearing a helmet, cargo pants and a reflective vest in honor, she said, of the construction worker member of the Village People.
Many freestyle adherents, however, say they are less interested in competing than in having a good time and bonding with their pets.
Donna Johnson, 55, said freestyle seemed like a calling for Huxley, her 1½-year-old golden retriever.
"Being a golden retriever, he's a showoff," Ms. Johnson said. "We tried agility, but he wasn't paying attention."
But in barely six weeks of freestyle classes, she said, Huxley has learned to focus on her and started work on weaving in and out of her legs, and doing spins and lateral moves, with a clicker as an aid and bits of liver as the incentive.
"To try to get a dog to go sideways is something else," Ms. Johnson said.
Ms. Johnson, who lives in Anaheim with her husband, Michael, said Huxley, who is rehearsing to the jazzy beat of "A Taste of Honey," as recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, seems to enjoy himself. "His tail is up and wagging," she said.
But there's more.
"There's like a spiritual connection between the dog and the owner," she said. "The dog is looking for you for the tiniest little moves."
But Ms. Johnson readily admits handlers have more fun than their dogs. Freestyle, she noted, is "a middle-aged-women-in-dog-sports phenomenon," many of them empty nesters like herself.
There was indeed quite a bit of laughter and cheering at a recent freestyle class on the grass of Jump Start Dog Sports, a dog school in Orange County where both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Mavrovouniotis train their dogs. Nine women and a sole male handler took turns going around signposts as their dogs performed heel work and, later, their solo routines. Patty Wiedeman, the instructor, kept busy shouting positive reinforcement while changing discs on a portable CD player.
To pick out the right song, the teams have walked around in a circle and measured their dogs' natural rhythm by beats per minute. The handlers then choose the music from a book that lists songs by tempo.
Poseidon impressed everyone by weaving backward.
"Very nice!" one student shouted to Ms. Mavrovouniotis. "That was great. You're doing very well with him."
Huxley, on the other hand, was in no dancing mood. He ignored the infectious beat of "Funkytown" to pull on Ms. Johnson's sleeve and at one point jumped up to playfully tug at her chest.
"All right, put him in his crate," Ms. Wiedeman instructed. "He can come out later."
Kathy Morris, co-owner of Jump Start, said that freestyle complements other dog activities and can work wonders for some dogs that regularly misbehave. "They learn to focus on their owners instead of having their own agenda," Ms. Morris said. "Because of the quick moves they learn dexterity. And you can't get mad at your dog doing this."
Tippy Sheppard, the owner of Buvi, a black puli with a class schedule more crowded than that of an overachieving seventh grader, confirmed that her overly independent dog has been tamed by his circles and turns to Bette Midler's recording of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
"The dogs have much more opportunity to express themselves in freestyle than in any of the other things I've been involved in," said Ms. Sheppard, 62, a businesswoman who is married with two grown daughters.
To maintain decorum, freestyle competitions keep the costuming of the animals to a minimum, though the handler can get away with dressing up like Charlie Chaplin for theatrical effect. And among the main organizations, including the Canine Freestyle Federation and the Musical Dog Sport Association, there are philosophical differences over freestyle moves and issues like attire and how much dancing the humans should do.
"We want the dog to be the star," said Ann Priddy, a freestyle teacher in Richmond, Va., and the vice president of the Musical Dog Sport Association, which formed this year.
The efforts to define canine freestyle as it grows also include a possible name change.
"People think it's swimming," Loren Jensen Carter, founder of a two-year-old regional group in Arizona called Sonoran Canine Freestylers, said of the name "freestyle." She is among those advocating "K-9 dance sport" instead.
But Ms. Jensen Carter said that all the groups support one another in trying to advance their art form. Last April her group, with about 40 members, started online classes in choreography, music editing and other freestyle topics on its Yahoo site. She said there are plans now to begin the International Canine Freestyle College online by early 2006.
Ms. Okas, of the American Kennel Club, said even the traditionalists at the organization have allowed freestyle to warm up crowds before best-in-show performances.
"It's fun to watch," she said.
Ms. Okas said there is no evidence that the trend is about to take over the dog world. But she added: "People love their dogs nowadays. They're obsessed. You never know what's going to catch on."