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Can music make dressage cool?

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TOKYO – OK, “cool” might be a bridge too far. We’re still talking about stodgy horse ballet done mostly by rich middle-aged Europeans that looks an awful lot like just going into circles to the untrained eye.

(I say that as someone who will vigorously defend the value and valor of equestrian events. But, really c’mon.)

But viral? Now that’s something Olympic dressage can aspire to. And for a sport that struggles to attract the admiration, or even attention, of the demographic that dictates internet trends, going viral could be key to the future.

At a spectacularly spacious venue just far enough outside the center of Tokyo to offer a glimpse of a skyline view on a breezy, blissfully temperate evening, Haddaway’s “What is Love?” played while a 56-year-old German-born USA rider danced, as it were, with a 13-year-old gelding named Suppenkasper. It was worth seeing.

Steffen Peters, the oldest U.S. Olympian to medal since 1952 after winning silver in the team dressage, picked the song — or, rather, an acoustic remix of it — to be part of a medley for his individual grand prix freestyle dressage routine. The performance opened to Robin Schultz and James Blunt’s “OK,” which Peters teared up talking about as a tribute to his wife — who would assure him that “it’s gonna be OK,” when he went through a dark period a few years ago.

From there: snippets of “What is Love?” and a slowed-down version of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” (You probably know it as the “we can dance if we want to” song.) If it looked like Suppenkasper was feeling the beat, that’s the whole point.

Dressage is as esoteric as sports get, but the music some riders bumped their routines Wednesday made them all the more captivating. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Dressage is as esoteric as sports get, but the music some riders bumped their routines Wednesday made them all the more captivating. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Not everyone was a fan. (Sick burn, tho.)

In the team Grand Prix Special, riders can pick their own music for performing the same dressage test as everyone else, but it’s not factored into their score. (Peters rode to Coldplay earlier this week.) In freestyle, however, riders choreograph routines to carefully selected soundtracks and are scored, in part, on the “artistry” of how well the horse’s movements match the music.

“It used to be music to maybe just support some of the gaits,” Peters said. “But now it's much more with the footfall of each trot step, of each canter stride, of each line change, each pirouette. So it's gotten so incredibly more difficult and advanced.”

Peters takes this particularly seriously. A former DJ who obsesses over detailed playlists for every part of his life (“showtime, chill time, relaxed tracks, then there's my one for my boat, when we go wake surfing”) he’s ridden in the past to David Bowie and Queen. The current freestyle routine has been a work in progress for the past year and a half, and just recently he took Kanye West’s “Fade” out.

“There's always a different taste,” Peters said of trends in dressage freestyle music. “Sometimes the dramatic music and the quieter, more emotional music is popular. Personally I like the upbeat dance music. If we have a party tonight, that's the music I'd be dancing to. And that's what I wanted to bring into the freestyle.

“Over the years, you know, we've struggled initially a little bit getting the spectators,” he said. Hence the house party vibes.

Most of the music selections on Wednesday night were unmemorable classical choices, but the trend of riding to recognizable songs is a few years old now.

In 2016, Spain’s Severo Jurado rode into internet acclaim by choreographing his routine to Santana’s “Smooth” (mixed with Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”). Jurado is back in Tokyo this year, with a different horse, and reportedly we were all robbed of another excuse to listen to the absolute banger by his failure to qualify for the individual freestyle.

Rodrigo Torres of Portugal rode to a mashup of orchestral versions of Pink Floyd songs. (The inclusion of “Money” begs the question whether it would be obnoxious or wryly ironic for the elitist sport to exclusively use songs about grabbing that cash with both hands.) Carina Cassoe Kruth of Denmark including a sampling of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” And Sweden’s Therese Nilshagen included someone other than Adele singing “Set Fire to the Rain” when she should have just used actual Adele singing “Set Fire to the Rain.” (I’m not going to look into whether that’s a licensing issue.)

Recently, snippets of dressage freestyle routines have been showing up on TikTok, where users are delighted to realize how well they can be synced up to different songs — the horse’s hooves keeping perfect time with the beat. For a sport that’s considered impenetrably esoteric, that’s a pretty good summary of what’s actually going on.

But if they were really savvy, someone would have ridden to “good 4 u.”

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