In other dog sports, the judge dictates exactly what the team must do in the ring. In Obedience, the judge calls out a heeling pattern. In Agility and Rally, the judge sets out a course.
But in Freestyle it is up to the handler to come up with everything: the music, the moves that will be done to the music, etc.
For many, training the behaviors is the easy part.
Choreography, on the other hand, is an entire discipline unto itself! Professional dancers and ice skaters hire choreographers to help them showcase their talents in polished presentations. Where can a dog enthusiast with no choreography experience even begin start learning how to do this? The very idea can be intimidating.
My advice: don't let this hold you back! Give it a try!
I would like to offer some suggestions - especially to the beginner in Freestyle - to help you get started!
We All Started Exactly Where You Are!
Realize, first, that every amazing Freestyle routine that you see, whether live or on video, was choreographed by someone who started out, at one time, exactly where you are now! Granted, some people have prior experience with dance or performance or music, and that can provide a bit of an advantage when starting out, but many, many Freestylers do not begin with such experience.
There is a significant learning curve that must happen before one is going to able to move from “I have never created a routine before” to actually performing fluent routines that look like a true performance and have great audience appeal.
So, keep this in mind: Allow yourself to actually be a beginner! Be willing to start with almost nothing and build piece by piece. Don't worry about what it looks like, or how your work compares to others, or what you think you could do, "if only . . ."! Work with what you have today and be content with that!
Piece by Piece
When first getting started, I recommend that you take your mind completely off the big picture at the end. Don’t worry about cue styles, whether or not you will love your music forever, attire, competition . . . or anything!! Start with little pieces. You can deal with the bigger picture later on.
I actually recommend starting to learn Freestyle choreography without music! That might seem counterintuitive, but choosing behaviors to string together is a skill that few are likely to have had the opportunity to build in other sports.
Before you will be able to comfortably choose what you and your dog will do, in what order, and at what point in the music, you must be comfortable with the very idea of pulling behaviors out of thin air and stringing them together into a sequence!
So . . . . really . . . start without music!
Practical Exercise #1 - A Simple Movement Sequence
Choose four behaviors that your dog knows well. They can be any behaviors from any sport or training discipline.
For example, from Obedience/Rally:
- Start heeling a figure 8 pattern with the dog on the outside, at the center point call dog front/sit, finish right forward, and then continue to heel the figure 8 pattern now with the dog on the inside.
That is a movement sequence.
Or, from Agility:
- Send your dog over a jump, starting with your dog on the right, and pick your dog up on your right side, move forward together for 4 – 6 feet, cue a switch (rear cross flatwork), move back to the jump together, send the dog over the jump and execute a front cross.
Or, from Trick Dog training:
- Cue a spin in front of you, have the dog do a figure 8 leg weave, have your dog sit, and then walk around your dog.
Do this daily. Choose a different set of 4 behaviors every day. Feel free to mix up behaviors from different disciplines, and work with behaviors of various skill level. When you gotten comfortable with stringing together four behaviors, expand to five, and then to six. Add in some movement with the dog on the left, and/or on the right in between behaviors.
Once you have created a few movement sequences, put on some music and do the sequences while the music is playing.
Don't worry, at this point, about trying to match the music, or about where in the music you perform each movement. Just practice some different movement patterns to music. Get a feel for doing that.
Practical Exercise #2 - Add in a Floor Pattern
A floor pattern is a path that you and your dog will move along as you perform a movement sequence.
A floor pattern can be:
- A straight line
- A circle
- A Figure 8
- The rough path of the shape of a letter or number
- A triangle
- A diamond
- A serpentine
The possibilities really are endless!
Working in whatever space you have available, try moving through a floor pattern with your dog. The dog can be on your left or right, or in front of you as you move backwards. Choose patterns that fit well in the space that you have.
Once you have done that with a few different patterns, again, put on music. Move through the floor pattern, with your dog, to the music. Try different music with the different patterns. You will find that some "feel" better than others. Make a note of those!
Practical Exercise #3 - Put it Together!
Now you can merge one of your movement sequences with your floor pattern.
Make a plan to incorporate four moves from one of your movement sequences into one of the floor patterns.
Keep it simple at first.
You could move through a diamond shape on the floor, stopping to perform a move at each "point".
Or, you could move in a circle, and perform two of the movements on opposite sides of the circle.
Or, you could perform a pair of behaviors at the beginning of the floor pattern, and a second pair at the end.
Once you have done this, again, put some music on, and perform the combination movement sequence/floor pattern as the music plays.
Congratulations! You have just done your own basic choreography!
Choreography is an art, and it can certainly be complex, but I would urge anyone who has an interest in Freestyle to jump right in. Start small, with tiny pieces. Full routines and smooth performances can come much, much later.