Dancing is part of every human society. But are we born with this ability, and is it exclusive to humans?

While listening to a very groovy song, it’s hard not to want to start nodding your head or tapping your feet — a fact illustrated by a recent TikTok trend testing people’s ability to remain still while listening to catchy songs. Turns out,it’s harder than it sounds.

Few experiences are as freeing and hypnotising as dancing. It is so profoundly rooted in us that cultural anthropologists have found scant evidence of any human society that didn’t dance.

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But why? Is the act of dancing innate to humans? Do other animals do it too?

Music makes us move

Researchers say music and dance are universal in human culture and that music has the ability to spontaneously induce movement in humans.

Believe it or not, this movement could even be wired in our brains from birth. Studies have shown that babies as early as three months old can suddenly start moving to music. It is still unclear whether they follow a beat or not.

According to researchers who study dance and the brain, when our ears encounter music, the auditory part of the brain translates the vibrations into something we can understand and interacts with motor areas in charge of movement.

Even when we listen to music but remain still, research shows that the motor areas of our brain still light up. Rhythmical aspects, like feeling the beat, involve a tight connection between the auditory and motor areas of our brains.

That’s why humans can easily clap their hands to the beat of a song, even without any musical training. Research shows children start to move in sync with music as early as four years old.

And while rhythm certainly plays a role in dancing, other aspects of music, like low frequencies, influence it too. Even deeper basses —frequencies lower than what we can hear — have been found to induce people to dance, according to a study published recently in Current Biology led by Daniel Cameron, a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University in Canada.

The evolution of dance

We still don’t know for sure where the human predisposition to music and dance comes from. But there are some hypotheses.

One idea is that music and dance helped with social bonding — perhaps by promoting group members to gather and cooperate, or as an early means of communicating important aspects of the group’s culture and knowledge.

“When we move together as a group, we tend to feel more bonded and connected to the people we’re dancing with,” Cameron told DW. “This may be related to why humans dance in the first place, but this is very difficult to test.”

It could also be that in evolutionary times, when our numbers grew too large, music and dance helped us stay together, according to Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.

Can animals dance?

“There are animals that produce elaborate courtship displays that in some ways look like dance,” Nicky Clayton, a dancer and professor of comparative cognition at the University of Cambridge, told DW. “For example, the dance of the cranes or the dance of the birds of paradise.”

The question of whether animals can dance or not depends on how we define “dance”, researchers say. If we use the word to describe the capacity to move in sync to music, which scientists call “entrainment”, then yes, animals can dance, they say. Although rarely observed in nonhuman animals, entrainment has been reported in parrots, sea lions, bonobos and chimpanzees.

In 2009, a study led by Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University in the US, showed that a cockatoo named “Snowball” was able to move in sync with the musical beat of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”.

A recent study showed that chimpanzees could tap a keyboard key in sync with a beat — a sound that, on its own, triggered chimpanzees to sway their heads. The study also showed that these primates engage in so-called “rain dances” when heavy rain falls.

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