Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Integrating the Past and Present

I have struggled in the sport of Freestyle ever since Speedy's death in January of 2014.  He was "my Freestyle dog".  Not only was he the dog I got started in Freestyle with, but he had some incredibly unique talents that I loved and appreciated and . . . in retrospect, didn't love or appreciate enough!

Freestyle is unique among dog sports because the dog and handler together create the very essence of what is presented in the ring.  From routine concept to finished performance, nobody tells the handler what must be created.  There are judging guidelines, but those guidelines don't dictate the routine.  The music, the moves, the style of the performance, the feel of the performance, the pace of the performance, etc. etc. etc. are all determined by the dog and handler team.

Years of creating routines and performing with a particular dog can forge a very particular kind of rapport between the dog and handler.  It's more than a bond - it is a bond, a working partnership, a shared artistic endeavor, and, truly . . . a dance!  A dance that unfolds over years, challenge after challenge, performance after performance.

And Speedy and I had a very emotional ride together.  We started in the bleakest depths - with him cowering behind the soda machine in class, shaking with terror, unwilling to even step onto the floor, and we gradually climbed to the point where he gave beautiful confident performances where the best of him shined brightly in front of audiences who loved him.  I loved the fact that people loved watching him as much as I loved dancing with him.  I loved that he shared the best of himself with his audiences.

And then . . . very suddenly . . . he was gone.  It was over.  And while the deepest grief came from him being gone from my life, there was an equal hole left in my life because he and I would never step onto the floor and move together again.  There will never be "just one more time" - we had all the time we got.  That was that.
Looking back, I realize that after losing him, I should have taken some time off of Freestyle altogether.  Instead, I tried to press on.  But . . . I tried to continue with Tessa, whose enthusiasm for Freestyle is fleeting, at best!

And, honestly, trying to continue with any dog at that point - fighting against the abject grief of such a heartbreaking loss - would have been indescribably difficult.  In fact, I didn't dance with Dean, who had trained and performed right along with Speedy and I for so many years, for quite a while after.  Not even at home!

I went through a similar grieving process for Maddie, who had been my Agility dog.  I don't want to underestimate how difficult that was.  Years of running Agility together forges a unique bond, too.  A great deal was left undone for Maddie and me, and Tessa, who had barely started her Agility training, could not fill her shoes right then.

But . . . Agility is different.  You go out on the floor and you run the course that is set out.  If inspiration is missing, you can muddle through it together.  Tessa and I muddled a lot at first, but every time we went out there and I pushed myself through, it got easier.  And the time came when Tessa surpassed Maddie as my Agility partner and we moved forward together.

I guess I thought Tessa would give me the same gift in Freestyle.  She couldn't.  Agility is her inspiration.  Agility is her dance.  She couldn't follow in Speedy's footsteps the way she followed in Maddie's.

So, I turned to Bandit, but he was a baby.  Much too young to do much but speculate on a "maybe" future with!

What I really needed was time.  I needed time to grieve.  I needed time to just miss Speedy.  I hated the fact that the sport of Freestyle went on and I was left halted in the dust, but that was what it was.

In the end it was Dean who broke out and gave me the performance of a lifetime when we filmed for the Summer Fun event this past summer.  A full year after Speedy's death, I signed up for a From Dream to Dance Part 1 class and got some help starting choreography with both Dean and Bandit.  I was really in a "choreographer's block" and getting the help from that class gave me the push I needed to get back to creating routines again.

And Dean ran with it.  I'm not sure if I shared the performance on this blog.  I actually don't believe I ever did.  Here is my sweet Dean Dog doing his lifetime best performance!

Bandit also had a turn, and although his little Junior Division routine was very simple, we had a blast performing the routine, both by video and at the Future of Freestyle live event!

My little Bandito has come a long way in just a little time!!  Speedy couldn't do this at 17 months old!  The future is quite bright with this boy!

And even Tessa, who managed to earn two legs toward her Intermediate title when we were muddling along last year, but then got a nice long break this year, has joined back in on the Freestyle fun.

A couple of months ago, I was just noodling around to some music with her, just aimlessly, and we hit upon a style that she actually likes, and we have created a routine together!  This routine is all Tessa!!  I have choreographed it solely to please her!   We are actually going to perform it at Barkaritaville in a week and a half (but strictly for enjoyment, I am not trying to title her) and I am hoping to film it to enter in the Challenge in November.

So, finally I feel like I am back to this!  Back to training, back to choreographing, back to enjoying this sport, and back to thinking about the a Freestyle future.

And now that I have three dogs performing in Freestyle (Bandit is still mostly in training at this point), my mind turns to integration of the past with the present.  Me being me, I must integrate the past and the present.  It simply does not work for me to tell myself, "the past is over, just look forward".  I can't help but look back.  And I would maintain that I should look back!  I must never forget Speedy!  I honor him by remembering our Freestyle journey together - the difficulties that we overcame and the performances that we shared. 

And . . . I believe I have figured out exactly how to integrate my past with Speedy and my present in the sport with Dean Dog, Tessa, and Bandit . . .
I believe I have identified the "pieces" of what Speedy and I had in Freestyle that I can look to bring out in my current dogs, and in every dog I set out to dance with:
  • Heart
  • Expression
  • Artistry

Speedy had heart and then some.  He never did anything halfway.  He put his whole self into everything we did together.

Every dog is different, but I can strive to find the way to approach Freestyle with a particular dog that allows the dog to put his or her whole heart into it, while being aware of, and having the utmost respect for, that dog's individual style.


Even when he was just moving with me aimlessly across the floor, Speedy was expressing who he was.  The essence of Speedy was never more apparent than when he was performing.

No matter who a dog is as an individual, the dog can express who he or she is through performance.  I believe Tessa does that most with her jumping.  When she is jumping, she is showing the world the beautiful, vibrant, happy, life-filled girl she truly is at heart.  But I have found other elements that we can bring into our performance - slow moving together, high paw lifts, a chance for her to toss that head and waggle on her pivots - that all gives Tessa a way to express who she is through her performance.


I have watched many dogs move with their handlers since losing Speedy and what often strikes me the most is the artistry that all dogs have, and that artistry is unique to each dog.  Most of the time I find the handler isn't even aware of it!  I can point it out and be met with "what"?  I think it's hard to see in your own dog at times.  Speedy was unique in that his artistry could not be missed by anyone.  I have had trouble seeing artistry in Dean, but I know he has it.  And I have had trouble seeing artistry in Tessa, but now I am starting to see it.  Bandit . . . much easier - I saw it in him when he was a baby playing with his hollee ball!

But I know this now, even if I didn't before - every one of them, even Tessa, has artistry!  It is there.  I just have to learn to be able to see it.


I have come to the conclusion that by striving to bring these three elements out in my dogs through Freestyle, I can honor Speedy's memory, and, in some way, continue what he and I started together, while fully appreciating my current dogs for the individual talents that they bring to the table.  I believe that by focusing on heart, expression, and talent I can integrate my past with my present, and future, in this sport.

The best may be yet to come.  But I never need to leave my beautiful Russian ballet dancer behind.  I will always cherish his memory.  And Dean, Tessa, Bandit, and I will honor it in every dance . . . as we move forward.


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