"Hoops of Fire" by Steve Mitchell
From its historic
and bevy of six-toed felines,
to specialty stores with their resi
dent felines welcoming customers, Key
West, Fla. is a cat fancier's paradise. This island
city also beckons cat lovers to Old Town and the
Mallory Square sunset celebration to see Dominique
and his Flying House Cats.
Long-time performers, Piggy and Sharky, were
joined in the past year by Sara, a young kitty who
was abandoned at a rest area and immediately taken
in by Dominique. Sara's boundless energy makes her a natur
al performer. For three shows a day, these house cats (average
in appearance only) hurdle over the heads and across the
"No grooming on stage," Dominique tells his partners as they preen their tails at the beginning of the show. "Remember your lines," he scolds them when they ignore his commands. At one
point in the show, he pleads with Piggy, who is supposed to jump through a net with rings, to "hurry up and do something. I'm look ing stupid over here!" And as the cats stroll, sniffing out potential treats dropped by spectators. Dominique warns them to "Just say no to popcorn!" Should the crowd distract the cat, -
Dominique is just as quick to scold the the offending person with a look, comment or hand signal. "It's oK," he tells the cats, "I've spoken to them." And the cats proceed as if nothing happened. Holding up his end of the
performance, Dominique uses his charm to make the crowd feel like part of the act and to keep his feline partners enthralled with the performance. He choreographs every segment of the show to highlight the cats' next trick, to get the audi ence's attention or to create a special mood of anticipation.
Dominique hails from the Brittany region of France. He was performing in Canada as a clown nearly two decades ago when he gave in to his young daughter's pleas for a cat. He quickly added the cat to his one-man clown act and began to establish the unique performing combination that continues to wow audiences in Key West.
Although he no longer sports the clown costume and face paint, his clown training is still apparent. He works the crowd just as hard as he works the cats-or truth-be-known, just as hard as the cats work him. First and foremost, Dominique is an entertainer with a European style of clowning, and his use of parody is an instant hit
Setting The Stage
Audience participation is an important part of each show. Dominique enlists volunteers from the crowd for several tricks so the audience can connect with the cats even more. Children bend over at the waist to form stepping stones for Sharky to jump across. In another trick, the kids stand as still as statues, and Sharky makes a super-hero leap over their heads. The kids' glee from interacting with the cats is contagious. In one remarkable stunt, Sharky jumps through a hoop of fire with flames shooting up from the top and sides (there are no flames at the bottom of the hoop!). Dominique expertly builds the crowd's anticipation for this stunt,
which involves Sharky flying through the hoop not just once, but twice. The trick is omitted if winds are
too high or conditions are unsafe for any reason. For the show's finale, Dominique announces, "This
last trick took me 16 months of training," as he rearranges the props. He then gyrates around the cats and
announces with gusto, "Finale! Finale!" to prime the cats and the audience for this last trick, which is an attempt to get the cats to sit up in unison, something they fail to do from time to time. We can almost read their minds: "We still have to show him who the real bosses are."
Preparing The Stars
"The first rule of training is getting the cats comfortable with people," Dominique explains. "They count on me to establish and protect their territory. That's why I make a big deal about moving the people back from the cats. The second thing for the cats, then, is learning the tricks." What are his training secrets? First of all, don't rely on books. "Books mess you up. When it came to training the cats, there was no one able to tell me anything about how to do it. I'm just about totally self-taught. I learned by watching the cats with each other.
From that, I learned to use their own language and behavior with them." In short, the cats taught Dominique how to train them. "The younger the cats are the better. Play with them more at first, and then just spend a few
minutes each day in actual training. For example, have the cat chase a favorite toy by jumping into a chair. Remember to take it slow and make it fun for the cat. I treat them just the way the mother cat would," he says. In
fact, Dominique seems to have crawled inside the minds of the cats. He knows how they think and why.
"They know I'm the top cat. I have to be to earn their respect," he says. I've watched how cats play together, interact with one another, and I use that knowledge every day with my cats. For example, I may make a swipe with my hand at Sharky to get his attention. That's what the mother cat does with her kittens to get their attention," Dominique explains. "Cats respect speed. So I have to be quick with them," he adds.
While food can be a valuable reward for these stars, it isn't their sole motivation. "The cats have regular meals during the day, plus treats during the show. But they do the tricks because they want to do them." The tough part is getting the cats to perform on cue. Dominique uses body language, verbal cues and eye contact. For example, at the beginning of each show he enlists the help of a person from the audience to hold a net with rings for Piggy to jump through. While the participant is holding the net at just the right height, Dominique yells, "Don't move and don't breathe!" The volunteer thinks he's speaking to her when, in fact, that's Piggy's cue to jump through the net.
Dominique's expressive eyes are a key part of the show. "The mother cat will get the kitten's attention, and then stare at the kitten," he says. "I do the same thing to get Piggy and Sharky's attention. That lets them know to concentrate on the show."
"But keep in mind, cats have to be happy to perform," he reminds. "If they're unhappy or scared, they will not perform." Some people think I use devices to make the cats perform, which is ludicrous. If the cats were afraid of me, I couldn't get them to do anything." The affection shared between Dominique and his feline partners is obvious. He rubs faces with them in passing during the show, just as their mother would in the wild. "You don't own the cats, just like you don't own your children," Dominique explains. "Both are easy to train when they're young, and both go through their teenage years, or the cat equivalent, when it's all but impossible to work with them. Both can be as independent as they want to be."
In fact, sometimes the cats will come up with tricks on their own. "The part at the end where Piggy bounces up
and down is something he did on his own, so I added it to the show," he says.
Your cats may never be famous felines, but with a little "motherly" influence they'll certainly become the stars of your home stage.