Zola the gorilla’s joyous dancing briefly set the internet afire this week, with a routine seemingly inspired by the movie “Flashdance.”
But internet remixes aside, Zola’s moves did not really constitute “dancing,” since there was no rhythm or music involved. It’s adorable, but without Jennifer Beal’s influence and our tendency to anthropomorphize animals, it’s more accurate to call it “playing.”
Here’s a gorilla at the Calgary Zoo doing a similar move, sans splashpool.
There is actually a bit of scientific research into which animals actually can dance—as defined by spontaneous movement in response to a specific rhythm—and non-human primates are not among them.
NPR’s Robert Krulwich delved into the cutest research subspecialty ever back in 2014, focusing on the work of neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel. He conducted research on a dancing cockatoo named Snowball, who was able to modulate his undeniably funky moves to changes in tempo—not all the time, more like 25%, but more often than by chance.
A psychologist named Adena Schachner cataloged about 5,000 dancing animal clips on YouTube, and winnowed the list down to 39 animals who seemed to fit the criteria of actual dance—spontaneous movement to a beat. There were 29 parrots and four elephants. Other researchers have also detected dance-like behavior in cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and pinnipeds (sea lions and seals).
Monkeys and apes, meanwhile, have been observed rhythmically beating on logs, sometimes keeping time with one another. But that’s not quite dancing.
One theory is that dancing is a byproduct of vocalization, more specifically the ability to mimic the voices and sounds of other animals. A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge concluded that dancing ability may simply be a bonus.
“We didn’t necessarily evolve to be good dancers,” Peter Cook of the New College of Florida told the BBC. “Maybe we just get dance for free.”