Bustin' a move with Fido

Merlin was getting old, maybe not gray-bearded and wizened like his Arthurian namesake, but definitely a senior citizen at 70-plus in dog years.

A veteran of dog agility and obedience competition, the miniature poodle needed to slow down - at least a little bit.

"He's still an energizer dog, but he needed a job to retire to," said Merlin's owner, Kathy Evans of Columbia.

So a few months ago Evans and Merlin took up dog dancing, more formally known as canine freestyle. Less structured than competitive agility courses or obedience drills, freestyle encourages dogs and owners to showcase their quirks. A funky, well-timed spin move can set a dog apart from the competition.

"When we first started doing freestyle, he'd bark at me and say 'What are you doing?, Aren't we supposed to be heeling or something?'" said Evans, who like most dog owners can translate barks and facial expressions.

"I thought this was a silly sport at first, too. Dancing with your dog? But now I'm enjoying it. I want to add in more dance steps."

Evans and Merlin have learned so quickly they will compete in the Midlands' first World Canine Freestyle Organization-sanctioned event this weekend. They'll spin and hop Saturday and Sunday in the Greater Columbia Obedience Club's warehouse home on Stadium Road.

About two dozen competitors in this relatively new sport - the first events were staged in the early 1990s - will travel from throughout the country for the Columbia event, officially called "Puttin' on the Grrr-itz."

Columbian Peggy Singletary, a longtime freestyle competitor and instructor, did the work to bring this regional event to South Carolina. Much like Evans, she got started in freestyle nine years ago when her miniature poodle JP suffered an injury and no longer could do the jumps for obedience and agility competitions.

At first, she struggled to find a large indoor space to train her dancing dogs.

"My husband nearly died when he came home and found all the furniture gone in the living room," said Singletary, who had moved the antiques to make room for practices.

Singletary won some awards dancing with JP, but many in the national freestyle community know her for her routines with her black standard poodle, Porter.

"Putting on the Grrr-itz" would have been Porter's chance to shine on his home turf. Sadly, though, Porter died of liver cancer in late August.

Singletary will perform this weekend with another dog, a standard poodle named Cameron. But Cameron would rather be flushing birds in a field than dancing in a warehouse to music. Singletary doesn't expect to wow the judge this weekend. (Freestyle is judged much like figure skating.)

"Porter was very elegant, like a ballroom dancer," Singletary said. "We can't get over (his death). Porter could make everything fun."

And that's what freestyle is about - fun.

"If you have a little dog who twirls, you can put that into a routine," Singletary said. "If you have a dog that rubs its face on the floor, you can put that into a routine."

Singletary teaches dog dancing through the obedience club and at the Capital Senior Center. She stresses that freestyle is for all ages, all breeds. It doesn't have to be competitive. It can simply be entertainment - for those who watch and those who partake.

Merlin, for instance, can't wait to hit the dance floor each time out. He twists between Evans' legs as she walks to music. He slips backwards between her legs. He runs and jumps into her arms. He can't get enough.

"He thinks learning new moves is best because there are more cookies involved," Evans said. "We both have fun doing whatever we do together."

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