A Sea Lion in Boogie Wonderland—Do Animals Dance?

Can animals learn to dance to the music?

Posted Jul 31, 2018

Everybody dances. Whether performing on a stage, moving on the dance floor, or simply nodding their heads, everyone can keep the beat. But is this a uniquely human ability or something that we share with other animals? Who else can dance?

Have you ever seen commercials with cats dancing to music? Although the cats appear to dance, I’ve got some bad news for you. Those dancing cats are fake. People simply videotaped cats walking, and then played it forward and backward in time to dubbed-in music. No cats actually danced for the commercials. But really, who expects cats to dance? Cats seem more likely to stand on the side of the dance floor and critique every animal that tries to dance.

But are there animals who can listen to music, extract the rhythm, and start moving in time? Moving in time to the rhythm is called entraining. And entraining clearly indicates dancing when synchronized to the music—that is, not only getting the rhythm right, but making your head bob, hands clap, or feet stamp at the moment of the musical beat. You have to be able to predict and time the moment of the next beat and match your actions to the rhythm.

Clearly many animals perform rhythmic actions. Fireflies entrain to other fireflies. When a bunch of a certain species gets together, the fireflies will start flashing in time. Other animals move rhythmically. Some even move rhythmically together—often in courtship behaviors (like whooping cranes). But these animals aren’t dancing in time with the music.

In contrast, all people dance. If by dance we mean entraining movement to the beat in music. People can listen to music, extract the rhythm, and move in time with the beat. You can see dancing everywhere. People regularly listen to music and start moving. Sometimes, they intentionally move, sometimes they just tap their feet. You can see drivers in other cars nodding their heads in rhythm, presumably in time to music. People march together in perfect time, whether in the army or a marching band. Performing together requires that musicians follow the lead of the rhythm section, or conductor. People extract rhythms and match behaviors. Everyone dances.

The classic claim is that while humans dance, other animals don’t dance to music. So maybe humans are unique in dancing to the music.

And maybe not.

Some recent examples demonstrate that at least a few other animals can dance to music. My favorite recent example is the dancing sea lion, Ronan. She was trained to listen to music, extract the beat, and bob her head in time. The researchers started with a metronome and gradually worked up to music. The wonderful part is that she was clearly listening to and matching the beat each time her trainers started a new song. In a critical test, the researchers played the same song, but slowed it down or sped it up (Cook, Rouse, Wilson, & Reichmuth, 2013). She danced easily to the song at the original tempo, and when sped up and slowed down. You can see a video of Ronan bobbing her head in time with the various versions of "Boogie Wonderland" (Ronan dancing video). A sea lion dancing in "Boogie Wonderland." Let me just say, listening to a slowed-down version of "Boogie Wonderland" by Earth, Wind, and Fire was painful. I’m not sure how Ronan felt about it, but she was clearly matching the beat at different speeds. I don’t know if other sea lions can be trained to dance.

Maybe you’ve seen YouTube videos of another famous dancing animal: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. In a similar demonstration, Snowball was challenged to dance to his favorite song ("Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys) when played at different tempos (Patel, Iverson, Bregman, Schulz, 2009). He managed to match his head bobs and other movements to the beat—even when the beat is changed. You can also see a video of Snowball dancing to different Michael Jackson songs.

So, two animals show clear evidence of dancing—that is entraining movements to various rhythms in presented music. But maybe these are the musical geniuses of the animal kingdom. Maybe Ronan the sea lion and Snowball the Cockatoo are the equivalent of Baryshnikov the ballet dancer, at least for their species. In a review, Wilson and Cook (2016) noted that there are few demonstrations of animals dancing. But the limited number of animal dancing demonstrations partly reflects that researchers haven't tried to train many animals to dance. Another group of researchers watched YouTube videos trying to find evidence that animals dance (Schachner et al., 2009). They found a few other instances of dancing animals—but most were other parrots. They argued that only animals with vocal mimicry showed evidence of musical entrainment—evidence of dancing. Other animals just don’t dance—well, at least they don’t dance when the camera is on.

And this is a place where you can help science. If you have a dancing animal, then tape a video and load it to YouTube. Label it with dancing and the name of your animal species (Dancing Dog or Dancing Cat or Dancing Pigmy Goat). The critical bit is that the animal needs to be making some regular movement in time to the musical beat—the animal needs to display entrainment.

But something seems missing in the video of Ronan the Sea Lion dancing to Boogie Wonderland. I’m not sure Ronan is enjoying herself. In the written report, she sometimes stopped participating in dance trials, seemingly irritated. In the report, she always participated with "Boogie Wonderland," but quit dancing to "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys. I get this. I’ve walked off the dance floor when some songs come on as well. So maybe Ronan was simply demonstrating her musical preferences. Overall, it is hard to judge if Ronan and Snowball enjoy dancing.

In contrast, dancing is something that most people seem to enjoy. And although we sometimes dance alone at home, dancing seems best in a crowd or at least with one other person. This is an important point. People dance. Alone and socially, but everyone moves in time to the music. We might be able to train a few other animals to dance, but it doesn’t seem to happen spontaneously very often. Like many aspects of human cognition, we share many aspects with other non-human animals. But we also seem to use our abilities in rather interesting ways. We dance.

References

Cook, Rouse, Wilson, & Reichmuth (2013). A California Sea Lion can keep the beat: Motor entrainment to rhythmic auditory stimuli in a non-vocal mimic. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 127, 412-427.

Patel, Iverson, Bregman, & Schulz (2009). Experimental evidence for synchronization to a musical beat in a nonhuman animal. Current Biology, 19, 827-830.

Schachner, Brady, Pepperberg, & Hauser (2009). Spontaneous motor entrainment to music in multiple vocal mimicking species. Current Biology, 19, 831-836.

Wilson & Cook (2016). Rhythmic entrainment. Why humans want to, fireflies can’t help it, pet birds try, and sea lions have to be bribed. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 23, 1647-1659.