BROOKSVILLE — For 12 years, Diane Chiucchi pranced, kicked and spun with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
For the past 15 years, Chiucchi has showcased equally spirited and sprightful canines through American Kennel Club shows — currently at the Florida Classic Clusters, which runs through the weekend at Florida Classic Park east of Brooksville.
The two callings share a history. When Chiucchi, 66, danced with the Rockettes in the late 1950s and early '60s, one production included a segment with Afghan hounds.
"I spent a lot of time with the dogs," Chiucchi recalled.
She promised herself that one day she would own one.
"Afghans require a lot of grooming," Chiucchi pointed out, as did the Rockettes. Afghans are big dogs, judged "standard size," with long, flowing silky coats of hair. Even their ears are so long-feathered that dogs aimed for the show ring often have their ears tied back with scarves so the hair doesn't get wet or full of crumbs when eating.
But grooming was time-consuming. And Chiucchi had launched a dance school in upstate New York after her career with the Rockettes. She didn't have the time that the show ring necessitates for intensively groomed dogs.
Even though she had shown an Afghan at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club show in New York in the 1980s, Chiucchi switched to whippets.
At ringside last week at Florida Classic Park, she lifted the smooth head of 17-month-old whippet Kit Kat.
"You just have to trim whiskers, clean their ears, trim their front if you want," Chiucchi said.
The breed is naturally sleek-coated.
Kit Kat, a mainly white brindle, perked her ears at hearing her name, jumping to Chiucchi's chest with exuberance. Although this wasn't Kit Kat's inaugural appearance in the show ring, the whippet, registered as Sporting Field Rita Skeeter, remained excited, popping up to the knees of passing admirers, offering kisses on the lips.
"They're very active. But at night, they're couch potatoes," Chiucchi said of the breed. "She really snuggles up to me. They're good foot warmers."
Kit Kat crawls under the covers between Diane and her husband, co-owner Ralph.
The Chiucchis own 13 dogs, including a French bulldog, but only three dogs are accorded daylong accommodations in the house. The others are cared for at the couple's kennel.
Already with nine whippets, "I think I'm going to increase my numbers," Chiucchi said.
She labels herself "an occasional breeder." She's joined just two litters and sold the offspring to pet owners, where she has determined they'll be loved rather than paraded for ribbons.
In the first round of judging of whippets last week, Kit Kat ranked fourth in her age class. Chiucchi said the judge probably ascertained Kit Kat was too tall, already having reached the limited height of 18 inches of a mature female.
Still, Kit Kat couldn't contain herself. She leaped in friendliness toward judge Anna Katona of Reno, Nev., even licking the judge's ear.
In judging circles, that's a no-no.
Chiucchi lauded Kit Kat's "beautiful shoulders, nice angle to ribs, nice curves. I think she's well balanced."
Kit Kat will be among the competitors Friday and Saturday as contests for all breeds continue through Sunday.
In the meantime, Chiucchi continues with her other love.
The 12-year resident of Hernando County trains young dancers at her Brooksville Academy of Arts.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]