Is Dancing Uniquely Human?

Paul Stein

We all dance—however badly. Whether it’s in the shower when no one is looking, at our best friend’s wedding like an idiot or, for the select few who actually have talent, on a real dance floor, humans are always dancing. But are we the only species to do that?

Jason Goldman, a developmental psychologist at the University of Southern California, asked that question at the BBC recently. He writes:

People often suggest dancing as an example of activities that are uniquely human. Many species like the bird of paradise have various sorts of mating rituals, which could be described as “dances” by analogy. But dancing means something more specific: the “rhythmic entrainment to music”. In other words, dancing isn’t only moving the body in some stereotyped or over-learned fashion. Dancing requires that an individual moves his or her arms, legs, and body in sync with a musical beat. All human cultures ever encountered can do this, and until recently we thought this talent or ability was unique to our species. Until, that is, a celebrity parrot named Snowball knocked us off our place of perceived prominence.

Is that a cue to post tons of videos of animals dancing? Not just the famous Snowball the parrot:

Snowball is a Rockin' to the Back Street Boys Cockatoo!!

But this beluga whale:

Mariachi Connecticut Serenades a Beluga Whale

And really, how is this owl—

Young Owl dancing

—any different from this baby dancing to Single Ladies?

Baby Dancing to Beyonce - ORIGINAL! @babycory on Twitter

Well, maybe it’s not different at all. Research showed that Snowball’s steps really were timed with the music he was listening to. Other researchers have described evidence of dancing in fifteen different species. “Fourteen of those were, like Snowball, different kinds of parrot. The fifteenth example was an Asian elephant.”

BBC Future again:

One thing that parrots, humans, and elephants have in common is that they are all vocal learners, meaning they can change the composition of the sounds they make, by changing pitch or the order of a song, for example. The list of species that YouTubers claim can dance is much longer, including ferrets, dogs, horses, pigeons, cats, fish, lizards, snakes, owls, camels, chimpanzees, turtles, ducks, hamsters, penguins, and bears, but they don’t pass scientific muster. As domestic species like dogs and horses don’t appear have any dancing aptitude, it suggests that this talent doesn’t develop entirely from exposure to music. Its origin lies deeper, within the biology of the species.

So the difference between that baby and a dancing beluga whale? It’s possible there’s not much difference at all.

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