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How a retired teacher, 72, became a dressage choreographer

September 23, 2018

FAIRVIEW, N.C. (AP) — Can you teach a horse to dance? Marlene Whitaker thinks with the right melodies, hard work and the right mindset, you can come pretty close.

A retired Buncombe County teacher, Whitaker, 72, spends just about every moment of her life these days listening to music, with visions of horses dancing in her head.

She is one of a rare breed - a dressage choreographer - who designs the performances for the highest level of dressage competition known as freestyle.

It is one of the most technically difficult aspects of equestrian sports, in which human rider and horse perform a series of required movements at different paces — a walk, trot and canter - set to music to demonstrate their artistic and technical prowess. They are given scores by a panel of judges, much as in figure skating or ballroom dancing.

The Paralympic athletes Whitaker works with were to perform her choreography Sept. 22 at the FEI World Equestrian Games’ Para-Dressage Individual Freestyle competition at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.

“The goal is to create a floor plan of movements to allow the horse to get the very best technical scores and then support it with music,” Whitaker said of her unique profession.

“Dressage is in the details, the little things that come together to make it look effortless. You will see such harmony of horse and rider that people will ask if the horse memorized the movements. The relationship is so subtle — it’s very sophisticated. It’s top sport work.”

Whitaker created freestyle performances for four U.S. athletes for the Tryon WEG, the highest level of equestrian sports in the world, which is held every four years in the middle of the Olympics cycle. The games, which include eight disciplines — dressage, para-dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining and vaulting — started Sept. 11 and run through Sept. 23.

Only four of the disciplines — dressage, para-dressage, eventing and jumping - are Olympic events, and athletes in those sports are already vying for spots on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics teams.

One of Whitaker’s longtime athletes, Becca Hart, 33, of Wellington, Florida, earned a bronze medal Tuesday in PI Grade III para-dressage with El Corona Texel, a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Rowan O’Riley.

Hart is a three-time Paralympian and has been to three World Equestrian Games.

She will compete in freestyle Saturday to an “ethereal” musical number that Whitaker choreographed.

On Thursday, Hart was cheering on her teammates in the warm, humid, open-air arena, and signing autographs from adoring fans. She competes in the para-dressage because of a genetic disease called familial spastic paraplegia, which causes muscle wasting and paralysis from the middle of the back down.

“It’s a progressive condition. It gets worse as you age,” Hart said.

Hart, who has been riding since she was about 8 years old, started out as a jumper as an able-bodied rider “because we didn’t know para existed.”

In 1998 her mom found an article about dressage in the Paralympic Games and she decided to give it a whirl.

“I absolutely adored the technicality of dressage, just how intimate that conversation is with your horse, and the amount of communication and control you can have with another living being. . It is a true partnership and a special and unique thing to have with an animal. It just hooked me,” she said.

Hart uses a wheelchair to get around but in the arena, on her horse, everything is fluid and flowing.

She said the para-dressage classification system is based on the rider’s physical disability, not riding ability to have a level playing field, so have riders with similar conditions competing against each other. Grade 1 is the most severely impaired, and Grade 4 is most able-bodied.

Hart competes in Grade 3.

“It was amazing,” Hart said of her bronze medal competition. “We were able to do what we had in the warmup and bring it out into the competition arena. We were able to keep the energy and the harmony and the flow and it showed through in the performance. I had the feeling I wanted. My mantra was ‘Sit up, short reins, keep it together.’”

Now she’s focused on Saturday’s freestyle, when she will use her performance designed by Whitaker, which she said is sure to be a crowd-pleasing heart-warmer.

“Every horse and rider combination has their own backstory,” Whitaker said. “Becca’s horse can sometimes scare himself, so we picked a very ethereal music. We get copyrights to music, and sometimes we rearrange music. You have to change all the tempos so all the footfalls of the horse match the beat of the music.”

Whitaker grew up in Upstate New York with a lifelong interest in music. She studied elementary education major but earned only an associate degree in music because “I didn’t want to specialize in an instrument,” she said.

Whitaker earned her teaching degree at the University of New Orleans and went on to teach elementary school in eight states, including North Carolina, as she moved around the country with her husband, Gary Whitaker, now a retired emergency room physician.

She has two children, Heather Whitaker Goldstein, an attorney, and Caleb Whitaker, who runs a fine arts masters program at Warren Wilson College.

Whitaker said she also always loved athletics but didn’t start riding horses until she was an adult. When she started, she fell in love with the sport.

“I was living in Durham, when the children were grown. I pulled into a dressage stable. There was music playing from ‘The King and I.’ I was captivated. Something just clicked in my head — this is something I wanted to do,” she said.

She said the International Olympic Committee decided to add a spark to dressage, which can seem aloof and almost boring to the general public. Freestyle dressage made its debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

“It has been wonderful for the sport. It brings people in who know nothing about dressage,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker has been working nonstop ever since. She works with clients who compete across the country and the world.

“I start my day at 4 a.m. and work until I can’t see straight. I have months that go by like that,” she said.

“Sometimes we get copyright permission to use prerecorded music, and do sophisticated editing, but we also compose music,” she said.

Whitaker has been working with Hubert Deans and Snowhill Music in Raleigh for 28 years on dressage choreography.

The first step in choreography comes in gaining a complete understanding of a horse and its needs, Whitaker said. She uses the analogy of taking the horse dress shopping.

“If I think he’s a size 8, I go through the racks, pull out three or four dresses, and go to the dressing room,” she said. “I sample the music while I’m viewing the horse on video. Sometimes it doesn’t do anything for me, but sometimes I put it on the horse and they come alive. It’s finding that groove, that particular combination of sound that will showcase the horse the best.”

The choreography comes last because it’s the most important, she said.

“Our judges are not musicians, but they are highly trained in dressage. They uphold the technical purity of the sport. They want the best technical ride to win. The goal is to create a floor plan of movements to allow the horse to get the very best technical scores and then support it with music.”

Annie Peavy, 32, of Wellington, Florida, also worked with Whitaker on her freestyle performance. Peavy, who had a stroke before birth that paralyzed the left side of her body, rides Royal Dark Chocolate, a 10-year-old Oldendburg mare owned by her mom, Rebecca Reno.

After her competition Thursday, where she wore blue patent leather riding boots and buttoned up jacket in the near 90-degree heat, Peavy said she was looking forward to Saturday’s freestyle.

“The music is from “Chocolat,” because her name is Royal Dark Chocolate so we think it’s special music and we think it fits her nicely. I’m feeling good. She’s very good with the music. It’s the best elements of what your horse is good at. I’m hoping for a great ride.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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