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George the dancing Albert’s lyrebird. © Kimbal Curtis

Let me see you shake your tailfeathers: why lyrebirds really can dance

Let’s go backstage with an Albert’s lyrebird called George. One winter’s night, I accompanied lyrebird expert Sydney Curtis to record George in Lamington National Park, Queensland. Curtis positioned a microphone on a long lead above a platform of trampled vines that George had previously prepared as his stage. Then, we hid behind two immense trees as dawn approached.

When George arrived, he thrust his magnificent tail over his head and spread it like a fan. He mimicked a number of birds – satin bowerbird, yellow robin, crimson rosella, and kookaburra – as he rocked from side to side on his platform. The dramatic play of light and shadow called to mind the flowing silk costumes of dancer Loïe Fuller, famed for her theatrical lighting techniques.

Then George moved his tail farther forward to envelope himself. Grabbing a vine, he tapped it against another – a simple gesture that set a wide area vibrating. He alternated sections of unmetered song with synchronised singing, dancing, and drumming in strict three-four time. It called to mind the rhythmic sounds of clapsticks and boomerangs that accompany some Aboriginal voice chants.

George put on quite a show – but should we simply be describing this performance as a dance, plain and simple? Or should we, as some scholars do, refer to this as “proto-dance” or a functional gesture? “Signal”, “display”, or “dance-like behaviour” are also common substitutes, as are “moves”, and even “courtship in action”.

A male lyrebird – not George – shimmies and sings to attract a mate.

His hips don’t lyre

There are various objections to describing what animals can do as true dancing.

The simplicity offered by the human cutoff point appeals to some, as does the demand that the aesthetic standards of elite dance be met. Poet and philosopher Paul Valéry felt that dance raises us above our animal existence; he required dance to be impractical.

Philosopher of art Susanne Langer held that animals could not dance because they lacked the intentional mental state to transform their gestures into aesthetic ones. However, many others have rejected the premise that dance is thought-made-visible and that language is an essential condition for culture.

The critique that avian movements are too simple or repetitive to be classed as dance ignores the fact that much popular and folk dance (and music) in the human sphere is also simple, repetitive, and formulaic. Simplicity and repetition are virtues in many genres.

Some argue that because avian dance is merely a bird “taking care of business”: finding a mate. Yes, animals enlist aesthetic qualities to fulfil a practical purpose. Nonetheless, humans (and George’s avian audience) can appreciate how a bird’s song and dance perform their function. Merely “taking care of business” seems unsatisfactory as the sole explanation for them.

Many scholars have also assumed that the capacity for music requires the ability to entrain to (or move in time to) a beat and that only humans could do this.

But in 2009, YouTube sensation Snowball, the dancing sulphur-crested cockatoo, was shown to synchronise to a beat and adjust to a changing tempo, and discoveries of other entraining species soon followed.

George represents an even rarer form of this capacity: self-entrainment. He dances to a beat accompanied by his own self-produced drumming and singing.

What is dance anyway?

Dance is a diverse practice. What does a Hopi bean dance have in common with an Australian corroboree or a striptease? How can any definition accommodate both the Rockettes and classical ballet, or a Hawaiian hula and a Nepalese stick dance?

Nonetheless, whether square, tap, or postmodern “task” dancing, such activities typically find animal correlates.

In fact, animal dance can be straightforwardly described using the vocabulary of human dance. Circle and leap, step and prance, moving forward and back, hopping, stamping, and whirling – all of these are known across a wide variety of species.

For instance, both sexes of the blue-capped cordon-bleu participate in high-speed tap dancing and step dancing.

Birds have inspired innumerable human dances, like the crane dances found in China, Japan, Australia, and ancient Greece. Human dancers both portray animals and appear onstage with them. Matching animal efforts is not without challenge – birds’ abilities exceed ours in many areas (such as migration and hearing resolution and, possibly, in some forms of dancing).

Removing the blinders of human exceptionalism opens up the possibility that animal dance could be fruitful in helping us to probe the biological basis of artistic practice.

Thin, clinical language diminishes our understanding of animal achievements. Interestingly, Charles Darwin revelled in using vivid human-animal metaphors, without scare quotes. In 1871, while drawing a comparison with mankind, Darwin credited birds with “strong affections, acute perception, and a taste for the beautiful”.

George is not a robot. As a songbird, he must spend many hours learning and rehearsing his song and dance; they are not innate.

While some of his dancing corresponds to the unpredictable rhythm and movements familiar in postmodern dance, at other times he dances in a clear and steady rhythm that demands still other fine motor skills.

Vocalist, composer, stage designer, and dancer – this Albert’s lyrebird is a multi-modal performer.

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