Not a Human, but a Dancer

What Snowball the parrot’s spontaneous moves teach us about ourselves

Snowball the dancing parrot
Snowball the dancing parrot (Irena Schulz)

Before he became an internet sensation, before he made scientists reconsider the nature of dancing, before the children’s book and the Taco Bell commercial, Snowball was just a young parrot, looking for a home.

His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana—along with a Backstreet Boys CD, and a tip that the bird loved to dance. Sure enough, when the center’s director, Irena Schulz, played “Everybody,” Snowball “immediately broke out into his headbanging, bad-boy dance,” she recalls. She took a grainy video, uploaded it to YouTube, and sent a link to some bird-enthusiast friends. Within a month, Snowball became a celebrity. When a Tonight Show producer called to arrange an interview, Schulz thought it was a prank.

Among the video’s 6.2 million viewers was Aniruddh Patel, and he was was blown away. Patel, a neuroscientist, had recently published a paper asking why dancing—a near-universal trait among human cultures—was seemingly absent in other animals. Some species jump excitedly to music, but not in time. Some can be trained to perform dancelike actions, as in canine freestyle, but don’t do so naturally. Some birds make fancy courtship “dances,” but “they’re not listening to another bird laying down a complex beat,” says Patel, who is now at Tufts University. True dancing is spontaneous rhythmic movement to external music. Our closest companions, dogs and cats, don’t do that. Neither do our closest relatives, monkeys and other primates.

Patel reasoned that dancing requires strong connections between brain regions involved in hearing and movement, and that such mental hardware would only exist in vocal learners—animals that can imitate the sounds they hear. That elite club excludes dogs, cats, and other primates, but includes elephants, dolphins, songbirds, and parrots. “When someone sent me a video of Snowball, I was primed to jump on it,” Patel says.

In 2008, he tested Snowball’s ability to keep time with versions of “Everybody” that had been slowed down or sped up. In almost every case, the parrot successfully banged his head and lifted his feet in time. Much like human children, he often went offbeat, but his performance was consistent enough to satisfy Patel. Another team, led by Adena Schachner, came to the same conclusion after similar experiments with Snowball and another celebrity parrot—the late Alex. Both studies, published in 2009, reshaped our understanding of animal dance.

Meanwhile, Snowball was going through his own dance dance revolution. Schulz kept exposing him to new music, and learned that he likes Pink, Lady Gaga, Queen, and Bruno Mars. He favored songs with a strong 4/4 beat, but could also cope with the unorthodox 5/4 time signature of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” “For the first half, Snowball struggled to find a dance that would fit,” Schulz says, “but about halfway through, he found moves that would work. The more that he was exposed to different music, the more creative he became.”

Snowball wasn’t copying Schulz. When she danced with him, she’d only ever sway or wave her arms. He, meanwhile, kept innovating. In 2008, Patel’s undergraduate student R. Joanne Jao Keehn filmed these moves, while Snowball danced to “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” And recently, after a long delay caused by various life events, she combed through the muted footage and cataloged 14 individual moves (plus two combinations). Snowball strikes poses. He body rolls, and swings his head through half circles, and headbangs with a raised foot. To the extent that a parrot can, he vogues.

Compare these two videos. First up, classic Snowball:

And now a medley of new-and-improved Snowball:

“Coding his movements was more challenging than I thought,” says Keehn, now a professor at San Diego State University, and a classically trained dancer herself. “I’m used to thinking about my body, but I had to solve the correspondence problem and work out what he’s doing with his. Headbangs were easy: I have a head. But sometimes, he’d use his crest. Unfortunately, I don’t have one.”

These newly published observations cement the human-ness of Snowball’s dancing. His initial headbangs and foot-lifts are movements that parrots naturally make while walking or courting. But his newer set aren’t based on any standard, innate behaviors. He came up with them himself, and he uses them for different kinds of music. “This is what we would genuinely refer to as dance, both in the scientific community and in the dance profession,” says Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge, who studies bird cognition. “It’s amazing.”

“Snowball’s style is like any human who would go out regularly to a nightclub,” adds Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University. “We rarely repeat the same moves on the same parts of the same song. We are more flexible than that.” (Both Jarvis and Clayton are dancers themselves, and both danced with Snowball at a 2009 science festival.)

The Snowball studies are “a rare type that we should do more of,” Jarvis adds. “Someone with a pet animal that performs interesting behaviors is approached by a scientist to study that behavior. If we did more of these, we’d gain a much better appreciation of nonhuman species.”

Snowball’s abilities are all the more impressive because they’re so rare. Ronan the sea lion, for example, was recently filmed bobbing her head to music (including, again, the Backstreet Boys), but she was trained. And when Schachner combed through thousands of YouTube videos in search of animals that could be charitably described as dancing, she found only 15 species that fit the bill. One was the Asian elephant, which sometimes sways and swings its trunk to music. The other 14 species were parrots.

“Parrots are more closely related to dinosaurs than to us,” Patel says, and yet they are the only other animals known to show both spontaneous and diverse dancing to music. “This suggests to me that dancing in human cultures isn’t a purely arbitrary invention,” Patel says. Instead, he suggests that it arises when animals have a particular quintet of mental skills and predilections:

  1. They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
  2. They must be able to imitate movements.
  3. They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be attentive to the movements of others.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

A brain that checks off all five traits is “the kind of brain that has the impulse to move to music,” Patel says. “In our own evolution, when these five things came together, we were primed to become dancers.” If he’s right, that settles the eternal question posed by The Killers. Are we human, or are we dancer? We’re both.

Parrots also tick off all five traits, as do elephants and dolphins. But outside of trained performances, “do you ever see a dolphin do anything to music spontaneously, creatively, and diversely?” Patel asks. “I don’t know if it’s been studied.” He wonders whether animals need not only five traits that create an impulse to dance, but also a lot of exposure to humans and our music. Captive dolphins don’t get much musical experience, and even though they interact with trainers, their main social bonds are still with other dolphins. But Snowball, from an early age, lived with humans. He seemingly dances for attention, rather than for food or other rewards. And he appears to dance more continuously when Schulz dances with him—something that Patel will formally analyze in a future study.

Fortunately, he has plenty of time. Snowball is in his 20s, and in captivity, his species has an average life span of 65 years. “They have a personality of a 3-year-old, but they live for 50 years,” Patel says. For that reason, “Irena keeps on telling people to be cautious about getting a parrot because they want to see if it dances.”