The dancer stands quietly on the small stage, waiting for the music to start. On his head is a pair of seasonal antlers, hand-crafted for this very occasion, with a vest to complete the ensemble. Then, the dulcet tones of the theme from Popeye reach his ears, and Tootles, the world's only dancing guinea pig, launches into a spirited jig.
Like Lassie and Morris the Cat and other animal stars that have come before him, Tootles seems destined for greatness. And while he may never pull poor Timmy out of a well or wax poetic over a dish of tuna-flavored niblets, Tootles seems to have cornered the dance market.
For more than six months, Tootles has been working with his owner and performing partner, Rusty Lindberg, to perfect his steps. Now, he's ready to take his show on the road. Mr. Lindberg, who serves as the act's manager, said he is seeking audiences for Tootles to perform in front of.
"Teaching the guinea pig and making the antlers, well, this stuff doesn't come out of the sky you know," Mr. Lindberg said. "Now I'm to the stage where I'm trying to get the message out to people who will enjoy this, get a laugh out of it."
Mr. Lindberg said that training was mostly a matter of combating Tootles' natural fears and giving him a sense of security.
"Guinea pigs have a real set of aversions," he explained. "They are the bottom of the food chain, after all. That meant I had to get him past his fears and establish performing as his normal (routine).
"For him, working means getting to exercise and getting fresh grass, which he loves. He dances not because he feels the need to dance, but because he knows if he does he will feel good. He is responding to cause and effect."
So far, Tootles is booked for a parade in McCormick, S.C., and some free performances before Christmas for local children. Mr. Lindberg said that he hopes to use the performances to get people to contribute to his charity of choice, the Medical College of Georgia's Children's Christmas Fund.
"I initially decided I would just do this for free," he said. "Then I decided I could use this to solicit donations for the hospital fund. So far I have Augusta Dodge behind me, so I'm happy knowing that there will be sick kids that have Christmas presents this year."
Although Mr. Lindberg initially believed Tootle's soft-shoe routine would appeal mainly to a younger audience, he said that adults have also responded well to his small, furry friend.
"Inside, I think we all remember the basic core person that we were as a child," he said. "I think Tootles taps into that, the desire to reconnect with that person. I think that's a great thing because the closest thing to God you'll ever see is in the smile of a child."
For now, Tootles remains a pure dancer. Mr. Lindberg said, however, that he wasn't ready to limit his friend creatively.
"I can't tell you what he'll become," he said. "I can only tell you what he can do now. I'm not ready to close the door on what he might be able to do. Who knows, he might be a singer."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.