ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - Twirl, bow, prance, swirl: Dancing with a dog is a sport and an art that's nothing like when you'd take your pooch's front paws and haul him up on his hind legs when you were a kid.
But it is, Rosalie James says, a lot of fun.
Some people do it for the competition and the winning of titles, she says, from worldwide canine dance organizations. Some do it just for the fun of it. And some, such as members of the Rio Grande Canine Freestylers, also enjoy meeting once a week, exchanging tips and tunes, trying out new routines and performing at local events like the Mayor's Dog Ball.
"We, my dog and I - it's always plural - do all of those things," James says. She and Rocky, a 7-year-old Australian Labradoodle, have been dancing with each other for about five years, debuting to "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
For James, it started when someone sent her a video of Carolyn Scott and her golden retriever Rookie doing a dance routine. Scott is internationally famous in dog dancing circles, the activity that's more formally known as canine freestyling.
"It just absolutely brought tears to my eyes," James says, "the connection between the two of them, the way they work together, the joy in that dog's face. I wanted to experience as much of that with my own dog."
Trouble was, James couldn't find anyone to teach her. So she contacted people who had books and tapes and began learning that way. Because "it's always more fun to play with other people," she and a friend called a meeting of dog owners who might be interested, publicized it and started what is now the Rio Grande Canine Freestylers. The club of up to 30 members meets every Saturday at West Mesa School for Dogs.
Canine freestyling is several decades old and of uncertain origins; several people have claimed to invent it, so perhaps it's a natural evolution from people teaching agility and obedience to their dogs and throwing in some tunes. It's not exactly heeling with music, because there's more art to the performance; costumes are often involved, and the handler participates as well as the dog.
As defined by the World Canine Freestyle Organization, it's "a choreographed musical program performed by handlers and their dogs. The object is to display dog and handler in a creative, innovative and original dance, using music and movements to showcase teamwork, artistry, costuming, athleticism and style in interpreting the music."
As James describes it, it's a learning process for both partners.
Rocky learned the most basic and most important lesson, to focus on James, to pay attention. Then, with positive reinforcement, he learned the moves, the twisting and turning and circling and weaving through James' legs.
Then James learned how to choose music that fit Rocky's gait, which she says is about 120 beats a minute, and music that complements his personality.
"There is some music I would love to dance to, but it's too dramatic for him. He has a happy, playful demeanor. I have to choose music that suits that."
Right now, Rocky is interested in martial music, "Anchors Aweigh."
"Dogs seem to have preferences for music. You wouldn't think so," James says. When Rocky hears the U.S. Navy song, "he perks up and enjoys it."
Finally, Rocky and James learned choreography, putting the music and moves together, both of them.
"It has to be a dance."
Since that "Cheeseburger in Paradise" performance, James and Rocky have gone on to win titles from the World Canine Freestyle Organization and the Musical Dog Sport Association. Over time, the routines became more intricate: weaving backward, moving at a distance from one another, Rocky performing almost by himself.
"It gets better with every opportunity. Every time I try a new routine, it gets better and better," James says.
You don't have to be Baryshnikov to do canine freestyle. You don't even have to be a good dancer, because you're the one who invents the routine. Your dog doesn't have to be a rookie or a Rocky; it should be socialized and capable of paying attention. James says any dog - purebred or mutt - and any handler, can learn.
"You can take an average dog and an average handler, and in six months to a year perform a really good routine that would be acceptable in a competition," James says. Not that you have to compete.
"The whole thing is about having fun."