So you think you can dance

For a long time, scientists thought that moving to the beat was an act unique to humans.

Written by       Illustrated by Giselle Clarkson

Giselle Clarkson

Many animals put on elaborate performances to attract a mate, from the elegant courtship dances of albatrosses to wolf spiders’ crunch-rolls and grind-revs. But do any of these really count as dancing?

What is dancing, anyway? Is it following a particular series of steps, like blue-footed boobies’ stepping and bobbing? Is it performative—using body movement to show off to an audience, like the leg displays of small male torrent frogs? Dictionaries tend to define dancing as “moving one’s body rhythmically, usually to music”, meaning the activity might require the ability to keep time with a beat.

Scientists call this skill “entrainment”, and used to think it was unique to humans. But in 2007, a pet sulphur-crested cockatoo called Snowball blew the debate over animal entrainment and dance wide open. In a viral video, Snowball was filmed going absolutely ballistic to the 90s pop classic ‘Everybody’ by the Backstreet Boys. It caught the attention of scientists, who put the cockatoo through his paces with different types of music at various tempos, and showed he was indeed dancing in time with the beat.

In a later study, where Snowball grooved on the back of a chair to Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, they demonstrated the bird had at least 14 different moves in his repertoire—bobbing his head, lifting his feet, swinging his body in high and low semicircles, voguing with his foot in the air, and launching into a truly impressive headbang, complete with waving mohawk. Those researchers proposed that the ability to entrain was linked to vocal mimicry—the ability to learn and copy sounds—which parrots and some other birds are known to have.

Then sea lions entered the chat.

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In 2011, Peter Cook and Margaret Wilson from the University of California, Santa Cruz, decided to try to train a captive female California sea lion, Ronan, to bob her head in time with a metronome beat.

“It was a completely opportunistic choice of species,” says Wilson. “It had nothing to do with predicting that sea lions would be particularly good at it. We just had a sea lion here.”

It took months, and hundreds of fish rewards, but eventually Ronan could keep time with a simple beat—the first non-human mammal to do so. Once she’d learned how, she was able to listen to music and find the beat in it, too—grooving away to ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and, yes, ‘Everybody’ (though after seven successful run-throughs of the Backstreet Boys hit, she appeared to become irritated and give up. Fair.)

To Wilson, Ronan’s mastery of musical head-bobbing suggests that rhythmic ability may be more widespread in the animal kingdom than we realised. We just haven’t been looking for it. Subsequently, scientists trained budgerigars to peck in synchrony with a metronome. Perhaps other animals have been scratching or licking themselves in time with a rhythm all along, but we didn’t put it on YouTube because it doesn’t correspond with our own ideas about what dancing is.

True, Ronan had to be trained to keep the beat, but humans have to practice, too, and our abilities vary from person to person. “Starting as kids, you’re always being sung to, or playing rhythmic clapping games—and little kids are kind of terrible at it at first,” says Wilson. It’s only at around age eight or nine that children can entrain like adults. “There’s this tendency to try and draw a bright line between humans and non-humans, but everything’s a continuum.”

In any group, there’s always someone who can’t keep time, but in general, as a species, we’re attuned to rhythm. “Two people walking together will start to match each other’s footfalls,” says Wilson—chimpanzees do this, too—and a couple in rocking chairs on the porch will subconsciously synchronise their rocks.

Some scientists have even speculated whether the human love of music and dance can be traced back to the moment we started walking on two legs. Music is often played at tempos similar to walking, they point out, and in the womb, human babies—unlike chimpanzees—hear the regular beat of their mother’s footfalls as they rock inside her. Maybe that sets us up to connect body movement with beats in a way that feels good.

“I think it’s worth asking the question of whether other species enjoy this kind of thing the way humans do,” says Wilson. Ronan the sea lion was probably in it for the fish. Snowball, a highly social parrot imprinted on humans, may have exaggerated his moves in response to positive reinforcement from his owners.

Still, the fact that such different species—humans, cockatoos, sea lions—can all rock out in time to the Backstreet Boys suggests that a sense of rhythm is an ability that has been on Earth far longer than humans have.

Wilson wonders if brains are hardwired for it in some way, but we won’t know for sure until we put more animals to the ‘Everybody’ test.

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