book excerpt

Can My Dog Learn to Dance?

I decided to transfer my vague interest in ballet onto Peter.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

I’d been vaguely interested in ballet for a handful of years when I decided to transfer any hope I had for my dance career onto my dog Peter. Yes, being vaguely interested in something for a handful of years sounds like an indisputable recipe for relatively late-in-life success, but the truth is that I was not very good. Although I’d taken a total of three six-week courses of Adult Beginner Ballet I at a local dance studio, I had yet to graduate into Adult Beginner Ballet II.

Admittedly the only thing required to move onto Adult Beginner Ballet II is having taken Adult Beginner Ballet I, but I never thought I’d learned the basics well enough to make the changement (a ballet term). There was no test, but I know I couldn’t pass it if there were, and I saw no point in putting myself through the humiliation of failing to blend in with a slightly more advanced group of adult beginners. My main problem is arm-related. I just don’t know how to do them. The feet, moving them around … I can pretty much do that, at least in terms of what is required of a person enrolled in Adult Beginner Ballet I. Things like pointing the toe and sliding it on the floor in front of you. Pointing the toe and putting it behind you. Raising the toe to your opposite leg. But the addition of the arms I can’t handle. Holding them out in a pizza in front of you while moving your toe around. Taking a leap to the left while raising them in a moon over your head. It was too much. Plus I have a suspicion that mine just don’t bend the right sort of way, or that I maybe have an excess of bones.

Peter, on the other hand, is breathtakingly graceful. It is a pleasure to watch him lift his leg to urinate—so poised, with such control. At once strong and delicate. A perfect ballerino; a dog Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yes, he’ll sometimes take a stumble if the floor is too clean and he is too excited about the fact that it’s dinnertime, but who among us does not sometimes fall out of sheer exuberance. Overall he is quite nimble.

His main dance-related talent is spinning. He’s a natural spinner, and will do it over and over, like a cartoon, whenever he’s excited about anything—a walk, a drive, playtime, dinnertime, the sound of a bag crinkling, the sense that someone, somewhere is picking up a fork. Leaning into his natural abilities, I taught him “spin” as a trick one day in our apartment. I led him into a spin with a piece of carrot, and then said, “SPIN,” and gave him the carrot. I led him into a spin with a piece of carrot, and then said, “SPIN,” and gave him the carrot. I led him into a spin with a piece of carrot, and then said, “SPIN,” and gave him the carrot. It took maybe two minutes before he could spin on command. I know what you’re thinking—holy shit … this dog seems to be genius-level at spinning. And you’re right.

Clearly we had to put his talent to use.

I came across canine freestyle while browsing through “dancing dog” viral videos on YouTube very late one night, and please don’t pretend you haven’t done it yourself, I know that you have and that I am not alone. “Salsa Dog” is a good one, but have you seen “Dancing Merengue Dog”? Oh, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen “Dancing Merengue Dog.” The video shows a golden retriever doing what can only be described as a suspiciously impressive dance routine with a man, each of them dressed in salsa-style clothing, in front of a small crowd of people in, for some reason, a parking lot, who are, sure, delighted to see the dance, but not nearly as delighted as they should be—not nearly as delighted as the dance deserves. They are clapping, but they are not weeping. They are laughing, but where are the Beatlemania-style screams?

The video lasts for three minutes. The dog stands on her hind legs, spinning, hopping, and moving backward and forward with the man to the rhythm. The man takes her hand and spins her several times. She has the standard happy look of a golden retriever but her vibe vacillates between “I am feeling the music and am in complete control!” and “an outside force is controlling my body and I don’t know what is going on, please help!” It has an emotional arc similar to that of a joke that goes on for too long, and then goes on so much longer that it becomes funny again.

The recommended videos for those watching “Dancing Merengue Dog” included several from “canine freestyle” competitions, mostly from the Crufts dog show, an annual international dog competition in England featuring the sort of “best in show” breed crowning that you’d expect from any dog show, as well as competitions in agility, obedience, and canine freestyle. I had not heard of canine freestyle until that night. In a moment, my life—and now yours by association— changed irreparably.

Do you know about canine freestyle? Please allow me to explain. It is dancing with a dog. That’s essentially it. An outgrowth of obedience, the sport requires a human to choreograph a routine of tricks for a dog to perform with her to a chosen song. There are costumes (almost always on the human, less often on the dog) and props. Participants are judged on timing and flair, and on how discreetly their dogs are instructed to perform their tricks. It should be imperceptible—a flick of the hand, a nudge of the head, a telepathic connection brought to life by the spirit of rhythmic movement; ideally the command will blend in as part of the human’s dancing. The effect should be fluid, as if the two are performing of their own volition. It is the most artistic and relaxed of the dog sports, hence the “freestyle” in the name. (It is also known as freestyle heelwork.) It is the sort of thing that makes you happy to be alive, rather than all the time wanting to be a dead skeleton in the dirt.

It’s incredibly touching to watch a human in a sparkly tuxedo debase herself in front of a crowd so that her dog might have a moment in the sun. And the dogs truly seem to have fun, running, spinning, hopping onto their dance partner’s feet as they waddle for a few steps. Leaping over their partner’s sparkly dance cane. No doubt the result of many Saturdays spent getting to the studio at 8:00 a.m., turning on the boombox, listening to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” four hundred times, and attempting to get a dog to hop on cue, all to produce a deeply strange little moment. It’s beautiful.

One video in particular makes me cry every time I see it. (Though, “every time I see it” makes it sound like I come upon it by happenstance—really, it makes me cry every time I seek it out specifically to trigger this emotional response.) It’s from the 2018 Crufts dog show, and features a young woman, Emma, and her sheepdog, Yola, dancing to the musician Ruth B.’s 2015 song “Lost Boy,” which you might recognize from the smooth-café-themed satellite radio station set to play permanently in my parents’ car. The melancholy-sounding song is told from the viewpoint of a Lost Boy saved by his friendship with Peter Pan. Emma is dressed like Peter Pan; Yola is mercifully without a costume.

Yola weaves through Emma’s legs and leaps over her arms; they move in sync around the competition turf while Ruth B. sings about the promise of never feeling lonely again. At one point Yola puts her arms around Emma’s neck, and the two pretend to fly together. In her final move, as the song ends, Yola rolls herself into a blanket and pretends to go to sleep. If you must know, I’m weeping as I type this to you.

I am, I realize, potentially too emotional for canine freestyle.

Still, we had to do it. Watching the dogs dance, I had an immediate flash of inspiration: the darkroom scene from the 1957 classic film Funny Face. I would be Fred Astaire and Peter, naturally, would be Audrey Hepburn. It would be perfect. He’s already dressed in her iconic, all-black Funny Face outfit, as if he were born to play the role. And true, yes, that’s not the outfit she wears in the darkroom scene—the darkroom scene is the scene in which they sing “Funny Face,” the song we’d use in our routine—but an artist’s job is not to focus on what will or will not go over the audience’s head. An artist’s job is to create. The audience and judges would just have to figure out for themselves the fact that Peter’s all-black fur was intended as a reference to Audrey Hepburn’s outfit in the bohemian dance scene from later in the movie.

I immediately ordered an instructional book online—from what retailer? A delicious secret for me to keep—called Dancing with Dogs. I knew I would love it from a note highlighted in one of its first pages:

DOG COSTUMES: When dressing up a dog, stick to a simple collar or neckwear so the dignity of the dog is maintained.

Indeed. The book meticulously lays out the steps a human must take to build their dog’s cache of tricks with easy language and helpful, adorable photos, before launching into the good stuff—the routines. Titled things like “singing in the rain” (a routine that uses an umbrella as a prop, inviting your dog to hop over it, walk between your legs, and twirl with you while you’re twirling with the umbrella) and “puppet on a string” (in this one you’re the puppeteer and your dog is the puppet; you move him in a figure-8 formation as if controlling him by a wooden dowel),, there is a sequence of tricks for every taste, accompanied, again, by delightful photos of dogs and humans engaged in joyous dance: humans in ridiculous costume, dogs fully nude. I was desperate to start, but found the book to not be particularly suited to my rebellious attitude. I just can’t learn from a book; anything with a hint of school makes me tune out, fail, and listen to anarcho-punk as if it actually sounds good.

(Maybe that was your problem with ballet? you’re aptly thinking, and it was, but also my problem with ballet was my arms and legs.)

The book came with a foreoard from the founder and president of the World Canine Freestyle Organization, which I found out was headquartered—oh my god—this was actually shocking, I’m not kidding—about a twenty-minute drive from my apartment. It was fate! I emailed the address provided on the site and asked if they offered lessons, and she emailed me back herself to tell me that they did, and to give her a call.

It seemed the world had a plan for us.

From the book The Particulars of Peter by Kelly Conaboy. Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Conaboy. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Can My Dog Learn to Dance?