Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche” was playing as Sally Kirschenman strutted across the dance floor with Lovey, her Old English sheepdog.
The 5-year-old pet looking like a gigantic cotton ball with legs bounced to the music. Mrs. Kirschenman did a sidestep.
When the duo finished their routine, seven other “doggy dancers” at the Capital Dog Training Club in Silver Spring applauded. The pooches wagged their tails.
Such routines are more difficult than they appear because they pair a dependable human with a not-so-dependable pet.
“On any certain day,” Mrs. Kirschenman, an Arlington resident, says, “your partner may not be totally with you.”
The occasion was a practice session for the Canine Freestyle Federation’s eighth annual show on Saturday at Lee District Park in Alexandria. Doggy dancing, gourmet pet foods and doggy day care are just some of the luxuries to which Americans are increasingly subjecting the country’s 48 million canines.
Kaye Ames, 60, of Lancaster, Pa., will compete there for the first time with Fella, her 8-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel. “Acapulco 1922” will play as she twirls across the floor with her pooch. She plans to wear rust-colored pants, a black blouse and a white scarf to blend with her tricolor dog.
She has been traveling to Capital Dog Training Club once a week for 10 weeks to rehearse for the event. She and Fairfax resident Joan Tennille practice turns, pivots, passes and pace changes as their dogs crawl, jump, spin, weave about and roll over.
“When I’m working with [Fella], the feeling I get because of how he gives, the attentiveness, the togetherness I just love being with him in that situation,” Ms. Ames says. “It just brings joy. I just love watching him do what he does. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s a relationship unlike any other.”
Doggy dancing is really one more way for people to spoil their pets, says Bob Yarnall, president and chief executive officer of the American Canine Association in Wilmington, Del. But the dogs enjoy every bit of the attention, he says.
“Some people would not play golf because they think it’s a waste of time,” he says. “Some people don’t like bowling, but this is something some people like to do with their dogs. But you have to have a lot of time on your hands.”
For the human part of these duos, it’s a “sharing experience,” says Mrs. Tennille, who founded the Canine Freestyle Federation in 1995. She prefers to call the activity “canine freestyle” instead of “doggy dancing,” and considers it a sport. She compares it to the competitive equestrian sport of dressage, saying canine freestyle expands the field of obedience training by adding an artistic element through music and choreography.
“As a way to make people understand about canine freestyle, I say it’s similar to dancing with your dog,” she says. “You can’t dance with someone if you don’t share the limelight. I use the example of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. You have to have two to make it work. Each is one half of a whole. You have to be a team.”
Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research and investigations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, said the event sounds more like “doggy dressage.”
“I despise dressage,” she said. “It’s really all about the human, isn’t it? Why would you spend time teaching a dog to do your will, which is something quite unnatural, by the way, instead of just being a friend?”
Nevertheless, the Canine Freestyle Federation has 150 members and guilds in areas such as Fairfax; Starke, Fla.; Rapid City, S.D.; Vacaville, Calif.; Roy, Utah; and Lancaster, Pa. Membership fees are $20 a year. The group’s Web site, www.canine-freestyle.org, receives about 2,000 hits a month, with about 300 people a month using its online chat room. About 20 exhibitors from across the country will perform at this weekend’s show.
The guidelines for the event outline the required moves of dogs and their handlers, which change depending upon the level of competition. There are four levels of difficulty, including a class for exhibition only. Music is mandatory and must suit the movement of the dog at a trot. Attire is expected to complement the dog and the choreography. The freestyle ring is a minimum of 55 feet by 60 feet, with a nonskid surface.
Dogs enjoy dancing because they are social animals, says Patie Ventre, founder and president of the World Canine Freestyle Organization, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. The association, which started in 1999 and is separate from the Canine Freestyle Federation, has about 800 members, with seven clubs in the United States, one in Japan and one in Australia. Membership costs $40 a year.
The organization, advertised at www.worldcaninefreestyle.org, holds 25 competitions per year, along with four contests held through video submissions. Dancer, Ms. Ventre’s 3-year-old border collie, competes in the events from time to time, wearing decorative collars and ankle bands.
“I take my dog up on its hind feet, and she puts her paws on my back, and we’ll mambo back and forth,” Ms. Ventre says. “She’ll be on my right side, and I’ll say, ‘Cuddle,’ and she stands up and dances forward. I’ll say, ‘Twist,’ and she’ll move to my left.”
Ms. Ventre has high hopes for Dancer and other dogs who want to “jump, jive and wag.” One day, she would like canine freestyle to become an Olympic sport. In the meantime, she continues to hold competitions with titles such as “Salty Dog Swing,” “Disco Doggy Dance,” “Dance Our Tails Off,” “Mighty Dancing Dogs” and “I Left My Paws in San Francisco.”
“You become joint partners with the dog,” she says. “The dog actually has a lot of input.”

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