If dance classes are on your to-do list for 2016 but you are struggling to find a willing partner, you might want to consider enlisting your dog.
“It’s called canine freestyle,” said Darlene Chroniger, who shuttles her demo-dancing dogs between two schools in Prince George’s County — Greenbelt Dog Training and Canine Training Association — where she has been teaching since 2001.
Dog dancing began in England, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States almost at the same time in the late 1980s, inspired by a dramatic form of dressage in which the horses’ gaits are set to music.
“Now it’s a legitimate dog sport sanctioned by the World Canine Freestyle Organization ,” Chroniger said as she unpacked Shetland sheepdogs Gracie, 9, and Mandy, 5, from their crates at the Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department, the rental home for Greenbelt Dog Training.
Chroniger is 68 and has a slight dancer’s build. She ran a (human) dance studio for 25 years before she retired in 1993 and took up dancing with her dog. Her class attracts a loyal following of about 25 pedigreed and mix-breed canine friends and their handlers.
“We have puppies fresh out of obedience school, up to champions who have won many titles,” the Davidsonville, Md., resident said.
A recent Sunday workout at the fire station welcomed dogs of various sizes and abilities, including an 11-year old Pembroke Welsh corgi named Stretch, whose back legs are paralyzed from a neurological disease. Stretch does his dancing while tucked into a red-wheeled doggy cart with vanity plates that read “Rockin’ It.”
His owner, Angie Hicks, 50, from Odenton, Md., is a program specialist for the U.S. Mint. They started dancing seven years ago. At the time, her corgi was an able-bodied lowrider, a nickname for the breed, which has big ears, a long torso and stubby legs. Stretch also has a three-page résumé of medals and titles in several dog sports. The team now competes in the Handi-Dandi Division of WCFO, for dogs (and people) with special needs.
The two-hour class warms up to Natalie Cole’s version of “Pink Cadillac.” It goes on to combine rote drills and occasional outdoor potty breaks with exercises that introduce new moves and improve old ones. Chroniger alternates using Gracie and Mandy to demonstrate techniques.
Among the regulars is an 11-year-old whippet named Whisper, a breed that handler Bevalee Crawley, 47, said is “best known for chasing stuff.”
Crawley, a Largo resident, said she cannot dance, but that didn’t seem to concern Whisper, who has four coordinated feet. Crawley and Whisper showed off the fundamentals: twists, turns, spins and subtle paw tapping, woven neatly together to Adele’s “Hello.” The dog and owner maintained eye contact as they executed the maneuvers, something Chroniger said is essential in any obedience training. It helps that every handler has lots of treats and kind words to dispense when things go right (or even nearly right).
Former dancer Pam Kelley, 70, her wrist in a cast from a recent spill that had nothing to do with her dog, got Chroniger’s praise for what Kelley calls her Bob Fosse-inspired opening for a number she is working on with her standard poodle, Pharaoh. In the dance, Kelley, who lives in Brookeville and teaches fitness classes in Montgomery County, did a deep bend from her knees with her back to Pharaoh. On command, the dog stood up on his hind legs, with his paws on her shoulders, a dog plié of sorts.
The class is about practice, and helps participants put together routines for competition, in which you get points for technique and artistry.
“But unlike other dog sports, you’ll see untraditional moves like a handler crawling on the floor with the dog weaving through her arms,” Chroniger said.
Also, teams come dressed to dance.
Hicks and Stretch performed a pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for a dance video contest sponsored by Dogs Can Dance, an online dog-dancing training site. In it, Hicks wore a blue leotard and matching tutu and Stretch sported a Christmas-themed bandana with dangling jingle bells.
The next WCFO competition in the area will be at the Canine Training Association in Beltsville this summer. But many students don’t compete.
“They just come to exercise their dogs [and themselves] and have fun,” Chroniger said.
And, if they show the right behaviors, she welcomes them to join the ScentSations, a volunteer group that performs in area nursing homes and other institutions.
“If we do a freestyle routine or just some tricks to brighten a person’s day or distract someone in pain, that’s a blessing and time well spent in dog school,” Chroniger said.
Skirble is a freelance writer.