Thirty minutes to show time, and Allison Orr was dashing around the ballroom, assembling her troupe of novice dancers for a final run-through.
The adults tried their best to get their charges in line, but it was of little use. Lucia wouldn't sit down. Boca was sprawled out, scratching her back. And someone had left a little puddle on the floor.
Orr wasn't fazed. "Okay, places!" she said, cuing the music. The big band tune started up. "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8!" she called out.
With a collective tug of the leashes, a dozen pairs of humans and canines began to dance. They twirled, they attempted to move forward, they tried to kick in a chorus-line fashion. But the dogs' improvisational tendencies quickly took over. Soon, they were lunging every which way, trying to sniff and lick one another. Their masters, in turn, had to wing it, pulling and pushing their pets in an effort to prevent the whole act from completely unraveling.
But Orr was beaming. "Good!" she yelled. "Keep going!"
Such was the barely controlled chaos of "Dances for Dogs and People Who Walk Them," an homage to the whimsical rhythms Orr said she observes every day in parks and playgrounds all over Washington. "People are dancing all the time, they just don't know it," Orr said. "The daily rituals of owning a dog, walking a dog . . . it's dancing."
Presented Sunday in Meridian Hill Park in Northwest Washington, "Dances for Dogs" was a collaboration between Orr and Sarah Lowing, two aspiring choreographers who met while working at Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park.
"Most people wouldn't say, 'Okay, I'll go dance in the park on a Sunday afternoon with a bunch of total strangers,' " said Orr, who recruited performers via posters and a neighborhood e-mail list. "But because the dogs were involved, it gave folks confidence. People felt a lot less self-conscious. They think the focus isn't on them, but it is."
Carol Beswick, a 38-year-old teacher who lives in Mount Pleasant, said she was hoping people would focus on Camden, her 2-year-old spotted terrier mix wearing a red-and-brown checked sweater, rather than her.
"I love to dance, but I don't have any aptitude," Beswick said. "With the dog as a cover, I was able to slip in. Camden is carrying us."
The performance featured four dances set to music of the 1940s: "Four Hands/Two Leashes," a love story about two dog owners meeting for the first time; "One Walker/Two Leashes," a look at the challenges encountered on the daily walk; "Paw Deux Dogs," a duet between Lowing and her blind chocolate Labrador, Longfellow; and the title piece, a synchronized ensemble piece for 15 dogs and their owners.
Directing dogs and their owners presented a set of unique challenges, Lowing admitted.
"We had to worry about preventing dogfights, and we had to start each rehearsal with about 20 to 30 minutes of 'smell time,' " she said. "There was a little gnashing of teeth, but no one ever was bitten--human or canine."
About 50 or so people braved Sunday's rain to see the show.
During "Paw Deux Dogs," the audience cheered as Longfellow circled the field, tracked down his squeaky ball and then chomped on it, all to the beat of the standard "Unchained Melody." And when the final number ended in a flourish of howls, barks, flapping tongues and wagging tails, the crowd broke into loud applause.
"I thought it was great," said Jackson Jordan, 8. "It was fun and silly."
"It makes me want to get a dog," said Isabelle DiGiovanni, of Adams-Morgan.
"Spatially, I thought it was very wonderful," said Liz Lerman, who recently cast dogs in a performance at George Washington University. "There's all this feeling going on between people and their dogs. The audience really gets excited about that, feels that. I heard someone say, 'Now why did that make me cry?' "
For Orr, "Dances for Dogs" was a natural progression from her previous work, "Group Dance for Seven Groundskeepers," performed at Mills College.
Set to Vivaldi's "Spring," it featured men with various lawn-care implements such as weed-eaters, blowers, hedge clippers, trash skewers and riding mowers.
"From that, I figured out that just about everybody likes to perform," Orr said. "At first, the guys were nervous. . . . and certainly didn't consider themselves dancers. But by the end, they were really into it.
"Next, I think it would be fun to do something with construction workers, get some heavy equipment," Orr said.
"I'm thinking either that, or postal workers."
CAPTION: "Dances for Dogs and People Who Walk Them," premiered at Meridian Hill Park. The choreography of short dances for dogs and their owners soon became improvisation.