Call of the Wild

Dogs dance and cardinals chirp, but do animals have rhythm?

Dogs Don't Dance

Very few animal species besides human beings dance.

Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here, and the time is right
For dancing in the streets.
They're dancing in Chicago,
Down in New Orleans,
Up in New York City.
All we need is music, sweet music.
There'll be music everywhere.
There'll be swinging, swaying, and records playing,
And dancing in the streets.
- William "Mickey" Stevenson and Marvin Gaye

Disney cartoons notwithstanding, very few animal species besides human beings dance - that is, move their bodies in synchrony with an external musical beat. The closest relatives of human beings, chimpanzees, don't dance. Cows and horses don't dance. Neither do aardvarks. Nor zebras. Cats don't dance. Neither do dogs, which is interesting given the co-evolution of canines and human beings. The evolutionary purpose of dogs is to be pleasing to human beings, but apparently natural selection drew the line at them dancing with us.

However, a recent case study showed that birds can dance, and this is unbelievably provocative. As the story goes, researcher Aniruddh Patel saw a YouTube video of Snowball, a cockatoo, bobbing his head and kicking his feet in time to a song by the Backstreet Boys.

Patel contacted the bird's owner, and Snowball subsequently participated in a creative experiment. The song to which the bird liked to dance was played at different speeds, and Snowbird appropriately kept the beat, speeding up or slowing down as the music changed its tempo.

A video of Snowbird doing slow dancing and fast dancing is currently (April 9, 2010) available on the Internet. I don't know how long the video will be there, but I hope you get to watch it. Not only does it compellingly show that this bird can dance (and indeed better than most people I know), but it will also make you smile. I even started to dance along when I first saw it the other day, forgetting that my office door was open at the time. But passersby didn't laugh at me. They crowded into my office, and soon we were all bobbing our heads and stamping our feet. A good time was had by all, even with final exams looming at the university.

So what does it mean that people and some bird species (and maybe elephants!) dance, whereas most other species don't? Patel theorizes that people and cockatoos are vocal learners, having the ability to hear sounds and mimic them, a skill made possible by close neural connections between auditory and motor circuits in the brain. These connections make dance possible, even inevitable.

The positive psychology point is that dance deserves more attention. I have sometimes observed that to understand what makes life worth living, we need to get out of our heads and into our bodies. To do so, maybe all we need is music.

Dance is a universal human behavior, and it is fulfilling to do or even just to watch, especially when groups of us are dancing together. Dance and more generally synchronized movement may bolster group solidarity. Think clapping, marching, or doing the wave.

In an otherwise forgettable movie, The Replacements, there is a great scene in which football misfits come together as a team after dancing to the Gloria Gaynor song I Will Survive. Maybe the US Congress should dance together. So too should the United Nations General Assembly. Just imagine: C-Span meeting Soul Train.

Reference

Patel, A., Iversen, J., Bregman, & Schulz, I. (2010). Experimental evidence for synchronization to a musical beat in a nonhuman animal. Current Biology, 19, 827-830.