When Patie Ventre, a former professional ballroom dancer, looks out across an empty dance floor, she doesn’t envision Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers swinging through “Top Hat.”
She sees Westies waltzing, poodles in polka and Mastiffs getting down to the Macarena. That’s why she started the World Canine Freestyle Organization — a group that holds dance contests around the world. People take their dogs to the hardwood, pump up the volume and just shake, rattle and roll-over. “Heel” to toe, of course.
Though Ventre’s still hammering out the fine details (she wants the sport to go Olympic one day), the sport’s basic requirements are simple: one person, one dog and one booty-shaking, tail-wagging tune.
“It’s a blast,” the Brooklyn, New York native said. “I don’t know who have more fun: the dogs or the people.”
Jo Gaebel and Cala, her 12-year-old Cairn Terrier, have trotted home with two freestyle titles in three recent competitions. They both only have one goal when they compete, Gaebel said.
“We go to a competition with the thought of having fun, and we do!,” the Boxborough, Mass. resident said. “Sometimes, we do our routine as planned, but most of the time Cala switches her moves and makes me innovate. She is a one-in-a-lifetime girl. She loves to show off, and that makes her a great freestyler.”
Ventre calls the sport the “Olympics of dog sports.” Though she bristles at comparisons to the famous Westminster Dog Show (“we’re nothing alike; we have fun”), Ventre said winning is definitely a goal of participants. But not the primary goal.
“Ninety-nine percent of dogs love the freestyle events, and the owners have a good time, too,” she said. It’s such a bonding experience between the dog and owner. People want to win, of course, but having fun seems to be the top priority.”
Freestyle dancing can be done to any tune, but Ventre said some dogs seem to enjoy certain styles of music more than others. And, yes, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s style of hip-hop is a favorite among some dogs.
“You hear just about everything, from waltzes to hip-hop to rock to showtunes,” Ventre said. “Each dog seems to enjoy a particular style more than others. Smaller dogs, like Westies, seem to like showtunes.
You know, like The Wizard of Oz. But big Mastiffs do better by hip-hop. You just see what they like and respond to, and go with it.”
Dancer, Ventre’s Border collie and long-time dancing partner, seems to prefer Lou Bega and mambo. Dancer gets out on the dance floor with Ventre and they just spin and twirl and have fun.
“She’s a great dance partner,” Ventre said. “She’s energetic and knows her moves.”
Canine freestyle evolved during the 1980s in Canada from traditional dog obedience teachings. Ventre said many have claimed to have invented the sport, including “a retired teacher who did pattycakes on a tennis court with her dog to music, and a therapy dog and her owner who decided to strut their stuff to music in order to make it more appealing to the seniors they were visiting.”
Ventre isn’t as concerned about origins as she is about making freestyling a professional, fully sanctioned sport, similar to ballroom dancing but with more tongue-wagging and bone-chasing.
Like competitive ballroom dancing, canine freestyle judges grade technical and artistic elements of performances, including turns and pivots, and musical interpretation. Judges also look for routine development and showmanship. This year, the non-profit WCFO will hold 15 live events. Ventre said they’re always looking for more sponsors — and more entrants.
“It’s been tough getting everything off the ground — the competitions and the rules, but I can’t believe how strong a response we’ve gotten,” she said. “I knew people would love (to compete), but I didn’t expect so much enthusiasm. It’s wonderful.”
Andrew Mouser helped organize the Patie Ventre Workshops and Dance-Off Contest at Ball Ground, GA May 10-12. Mouser and his lovable pup find freestyle dancing to be a beautiful experience.
“To me, the most rewarding experience is the bonding between the dog and the handler,” he said. “Most sports provide this, but it seems that Canine Freestyle creates an even stronger bond. There have been more than a few times when I’ve seen dog owners not involved in this sport brought to tears from a wonderful routine.”
The sport is quickly gaining popularity. The WCFO, founded in 1999, has more than 400 members in 13 countries — including Australia, Holland and Japan. Ventre estimates annual participation to be more than 2,500 — and growing.
“And that’s not counting unsanctioned, independent doggy-dancing performances in living rooms around the world,” Ventre said.
“You don’t need a dance floor or competition to dance with your dog,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, and you can do it in the privacy of your kitchen. Your dog won’t tell.”