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Pooches and their partners boogie with the best of 'em

Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Susan Jurgelski, The Associated Press

LANCASTER -- Maryanne Cantwell's dance partner is a real dog.

Conner is on the shaggy side, has a significant snout, big teeth and sometimes likes to scratch himself. And to add insult to injury, he has two left feet.

But this dog can dance.

As Big Band music plays, Cantwell leads with her right leg, a measured stride, and Conner follows. Cantwell moves with precision, stepping side to side. Conner dances alongside with synchronized ease.

Snout, teeth and feet aside, Conner has got a certain canine charisma, and he has taken to hoofing like a pooch to a fire hydrant.

Even Fred Astaire would appreciate Conner's dogged devotion to his partner, unleashed energy and last but not least, his nonstop tail wag.

At Kaye Ames School for Dogs, dogs like Conner, a golden retriever, gotta dance.

Dancing with dogs, or as it is more officially known, musical canine freestyle or just canine freestyle, is gaining a following among six-footed teams nationwide. In canine freestyle, dog and handler perform choreographed moves to music. It's dog obedience training meets ballroom dancing, but Ginger and Fred are out and Rover and his "mom" are in.

Dogged dancing duos are taking classes, giving demonstrations at malls, nursing homes and dog shows, even competing. In Lancaster County, dog trainer Kaye Ames has been keeping stride, offering two dog dancing classes at her school for the past three months.

"This is one way of unwinding your dog," Ames said. "Most of all it's fun for you and your dog."

Dancing with dogs has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years.

Some say the sport has its roots in horse and rider dressage contests incorporating precise movements. Others attribute the ongoing use of music in obedience classes to sparking canine cavorting.

Several competition-sanctioning organizations formed in the '90s, and in 1996, dog and handler teams sponsored by Heinz Pup-Peroni appeared on television shows such as the "Today" show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and "Good Morning America." It was the same year a dog dancing Web site was established on the Internet.

Now there are classes and competitions worldwide showcasing specific dancing styles, such as square dancing, but all incorporating flashy moves and costumes. One of the goals of the New York City-based World Canine Freestyle Federation is to propel canine freestyle into Olympic competition.

"It is a fun sport for owners and dogs, and the audience," says Patie Ventre, WCFF founder, and owner of an advertising company. "Based on basic obedience training, it adds other dimensions such as music, timing, costuming, routine development, showmanship.

"I loved this sport from the beginning and dedicated my company's resources to its promotion. I am a past roller skating pairs champion as well as a ballroom dance champion, and canine freestyle was something I could relate to on many different levels. ... It truly demonstrates the joy and fun of training dogs."

Pooch prancing can be pretty or pretty awkward.

But to die-hard devotees such as Joan Tennille, a former dance instructor at Ohio University and now president of the New York City-based Canine Freestyle Federation, it's more than pretty.

"It can be artistry -- poetry in motion."

Does your schnauzer have a certain sashay in his step? Does your pup perk up her ears to music, wagging her tail in time to the beat?

Take pawse.

Underneath all that fur may be a Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire just dying to be let out.

Any dog can learn to dance, and even old dogs can learn new tricks or new steps.

"Music draws out creativity and allows people to overcome inhibitions," Ames said. "Dogs pick up on that." And dancing is great exercise for dogs and the dog-devoted.

"It's one of the nicest things you can do for your dog when you have no other way to exercise -- like it's snowing outside," Ames said.

Owners usually start dance training with their dogs on leashes, but as both dogs and owners gain proficiency, dogs may be unleashed.

In canine freestyle, dogs and owners learn more than 20 moves.

"There's in, under, loop, heeling at the right and heeling at the left," says Ames. Together, dogs and owners pirouette, step sideways, even cross their legs while walking sideways.

Owners teach their dogs to respond to cue words such as: "high," in which the dogs actually strike an upright pose and put their paws on the front of the owner, and "bow" or "curtsy," in which the dog takes a chest-to-the-floor bow.

"You pick the moves you like, then you pick a piece of music and choreograph the dance," Ames said. In Ames' classes, students bring their own music by artists ranging from Tina Turner to Kenny G.

"We dance to Broadway show tunes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. 'God Bless America' is a good dance tune," Ames said.

Dog students range from big to small, Dobermans to Shetland sheep dogs.

"I like that it's something we can do together," said Barbara Burton of Lancaster, who brings her little sheltie Spree (short for Penny Wise Shopping Spree) to class. "She's a little on the shy side so I like getting her out."

"It's a challenge," Cantwell said. "It's also good concentration tool for the dog."



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