For a brief hour during last week’s Dressage at Devon, four professional riders turned away from their beloved USDF training scale and the classical masters and toward a new authority: breakdancers.
Lauren Sammis, Jim Koford, Catherine Haddad Staller and Lauren Chumley went head-to-head at the show’s inaugural “Dressage Dance Off” exhibition on Friday night, where they were judged by two well-known “breakers”—Jamal “Nemesis” Warren and Ivan “Urban Action Figure” Manriquez—and international dressage rider Christoph Koschel of Germany.
“It was a little outside of my comfort zone, but it was so much fun,” said Sammis, who emerged as the overall winner of the competition. “I think it’s such a great way to get the public involved and to make dressage fun.”
In a typical dressage freestyle, riders go into the competition arena with a carefully choreographed floor plan and personalized musical score that they’ve practiced to perfection. To mimic the free-spiritedness of breakdancing, however, Dance-Off featured live music, played by the Philidelphia-based Elegance String Quartet, out of the bed of a truck parked by the arena’s entrance. Riders were not notified of the songs, or even the genres, prior to the event. In the same vein, athletes were expected to ride by the seat of their pants.
Luckily for Sammis, for whom the quartet played an instrumental version of Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” in the final round, an unpracticed, spur-of-the-moment decision to attempt no-handed one-tempi changes down the centerline sealed her victory.
“I was watching [Haddad Staller] go around and do beautiful pirouettes and changes with one hand, and I thought, ‘What am I gonna do?’ ” Sammis said. “I was on the centerline, and she was going as straight as can be, and I just thought, ‘Why not drop my reins?’ My mare, she was just like, ‘I gotcha,’ and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a moment to retire with right there!’ ”
That moment underscored the value of the entire event, according to Sammis’ competitor Jim Koford.
“Lauren threw down the gauntlet when she did zero-handed one-tempis,” Koford said. “I was like, ‘All right sister, now we’re upping our game here. This takes it to a whole new level.’ It’s what I love about the Dance Off format; I think it gives us a chance to have fun with it, without the limitations of being stuck in 20-by-60 meters doing things like exactly 12 to 15 steps of piaffe, et cetera.”
Watch the final dance off between Sammis and Koford, courtesy of Horse & Country TV:
Bedazzled with glitter and bearing a dollar sign necklace, Sammis’ 15-year-old mare Daisy Van Wittenstein P (Johnson–Ziggy Van Wittenstein), who usually shows in the Grand Prix ring, looked more ready for a parade than a traditional dressage test. The dress code made Sammis hesitate at first, but the idea grew on her.
“I’m not normally very into sparkles. When they said, ‘go risky’ on costumes, I was thinking off-white or cream,” Sammis said, laughing. “That’s about as far as my definition of risky normally goes—I’m a pretty conservative dresser when it comes to horses, and everything is usually white or navy. So it was a little bit outside of my comfort zone. But then I thought, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it, do it big.’ ”
Sammis credited her win, in part, to her close relationship with “Daisy Van Doodles,” who she’s been riding for years.
“Daisy Van Doodles is my heart horse,” Sammis said. “She is my love and is the most amazing animal. Whether you’re riding her year-round or just around her in the barn, she’s the most generous and kind spirit. She embodies the reason people ride horses or own horses.”
The Dance Off was the brainchild of Dressage at Devon board member Christina Morin-Graham, who has ties to the breakdancing community through her husband. She is also the owner of Laurencio (Laurentio—Pasadena, Donnerhall), who was Koford’s mount for the event. (The 16-year-old gelding earned team gold for Canada at the 2019 Lima Pan American Games with Tina Irwin, albeit without the copious volume of tinsel braided into his mane and tail.)
The competition, which was held under the lights Friday between night classes, was conceived with a three-round format: Koford and Chumley went head-to-head in a round focused on trot, piaffe and passage; while Haddad Staller and Sammis competed in a round with music appropriate for the canter. Sammis and Koford then advanced to the final “Bring It On” round where each had two minutes to wow the judges. Instead of using traditional dressage judging, the riders were judged using break dancing’s “Trivium” protocol, based on who best channeled body (rhythm, energy, elasticity), mind (technicality, creativity) and soul (harmony, interpretation of the music). And, perhaps, who could drop their reins and stick the one-tempis like a boss.
Morin-Graham was deliberate in the riders she chose for the Dance Off, according to Koford.
“She picked a group of riders that were all the biggest hams when it comes to the ring. Give us some applause, some audience, and a reason to wear sparkle, and we’re all in,” said Koford, who performed his final two minutes to the quartet’s version of Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.”
Unlike most dressage riders, Koford has experience riding to live music for a crowd. He has ridden to a live orchestra multiple times for a yearly Brooke USA Foundation fundraiser called Divertementos & Dressage, coming up again Oct. 19 in Tryon, North Carolina. Though it sounds nerve-wracking, live music has an improvisational effect that Koford appreciates.
“It actually just adds to the whole energy when you’re riding in the ring,” he said. “When they’re into the music, the horses have an extra little spring in their step, a little more intensity to what they’re doing. When it’s not just a soundtrack, you can almost feel the beats as you’re riding to it; it’s very interactive. You learn to expect the unexpected; to roll with it. It’s so much fun.”
Judge Koschel was equally enthusiastic.
“To see this from the view of a dressage rider, I think we need more of this in the future. I love it,” he said after Chumley and Koford’s round. “Their charisma and their connection was spectacular. They are going out there and basically becoming one with the music.”
And while judges Urban Action Figure and Nemesis are dancers rather than riders—and as such, commented on the impressive “moonwalk” they saw from the horses—they also understood the horse-human connection on display beneath the bling.
“It’s a social dance; it’s a conversation, and it’s the unison between the rider and the horse,” Urban Action Figure said, summarizing the final round.
Given its positive reception, the Dressage Dance Off could become a yearly occurrence at Dressage at Devon.
“Everyone really seemed to enjoy it,” Koford said. “This gave the evening a little bit of levity, and now that we’ve had a trial run, I think we’re ready to take this concept and run with it. We had a lot of fun with it this year, but it was [an experiment]. We didn’t know how it was going to go. Now that we’ve dipped our toes in the water, I think we’re going to be a lot more savvy about how this works.”