Brolga the Dancing Crane Girl

John Nelson Click to

John Nelson is the author of Cultivating Judgment (New Forums Press), on the teaching of critical thinking skills, and has contributed fiction and essays to The Gettysburg Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Snowy Egret, and Birding.  His essay "Brolga the Dancing Crane Girl,' on birds and dance, was awarded the Carter Prize for the best non-fiction piece published in Shenandoah during the 2011-2012 season.

No one knows when or why humans first danced.  The original dancers may have danced to display their fitness to the opposite sex, please or appease the gods, or act out a spontaneous fit of ecstasy, but these are just speculations about a mystery—the secret of the music that beckons us, the rhythms that propel us.  Fossils give us clues about the origin of bipedalism and the ability to jump or bend or spin, but the actual movements of a body have never been fossilized.  From as far back as 3300 B.C. we have images of dancers in Indian paintings and Egyptian tombs, but we can’t say when dance became part of human culture.

We also don’t know when birds first danced.  Did they evolve from dancing reptiles?  It’s a whimsical question perhaps, but one we won’t answer.  We do know that many human dances—raven and oystercatcher dances of Native Americans, Swan Lake, the Funky Chicken—mimic bird movements.  An Australian myth tells the story of Brolga, her tribe’s most joyful girl and most innovative dancer, who attracted many suitors but rejected them all.  One reject, an evil magician, decided that if he couldn’t have Brolga, no one else would, and so he transformed her.  When her tribe went looking for her, they found instead a tall, graceful bird engaged in a beautiful, intricate dance.  The crane we now call Brolga still dances in the Australian grasslands, with bows, dips and leaps that have inspired generations of human dancers.

What constitutes a dance is problematic.  To dance, according to one definition, is “to move rhythmically, usually to music, using prescribed or improvised steps and gestures,” but the judgment of whether a given movement is “rhythmic” can be highly subjective.  I recall the dancing of a girlfriend in college.  She kept moving to be sure, with fervent spasms that created a kind of pattern, but the beats that drove her were entirely internal or at least had no apparent correlation to the music.  Dance critic Julie van Kamp notes the “puzzling borderline phenomena” that can make it hard to tell a dance from a non-dance.  Birds, like humans, may dance to a music of their own, with rhythms we can’t readily detect or measure.

It can also be difficult to distinguish between a dance and a “display,” a term that, in reference to birds, includes movements commonly called “dances” but is used more broadly to denote any innate, ritualized visual signal.  A bird dance, like other displays, is both communication and strategic stimulation.  The neck retractions, pouch inflations, sky pointing, and aerial tumbling of various birds are messages delivered to elicit specific responses in the recipients.  The body, human or avian, has its own language, and dance may convey the message with an urgency and clarity that no vocalization alone, including words, could achieve.  Dancing birds may create a music of sorts—calls, squeaks, screams–but only a few birds, such as the northern mockingbird, literally “sing” as they dance.  It’s no mean feat for any animal to vocalize with complexity while caught up in energetic, elaborate movement, innate or not.

As with humans, birds have a repertoire of dances for various occasions, including courtship dances, “war” or at least threat dances, and the “triumph ceremonies” of geese, likened by Konrad Lorenz to “militant enthusiasm in man” and akin to the choreographed gloating celebrations of NFL wide receivers.  While the threat postures of birds certainly appear hostile, they are generally used to defuse, not escalate potential conflict.  Often the threat is a bluff, and few bird disputes result in actual combat.   In On Aggression, Lorenz interprets the seemingly belligerent “appeasement ceremony” of a crane as the crane’s way of “expressing in easily understood symbolism that his threat of attack is emphatically not directed against his partner but, on the contrary, away from him, against the wicked world outside, implying in this manner the motive of comradely defense.”  Birds may dance to set themselves apart, in defense of territory or in advertisement of their superiority over their rivals, or, like courting terns and appeasing cranes, they may dance to bind themselves together.

It’s the courtship rituals of birds that seem most dance-like to humans, while the stereotyped movements of threat and defense, though often quite intricate, seem to test the boundary between dance and display.  In defense of its territory, a bird may crouch, hiss, sway, flap its wings, jerk its tail, compress or puff up its feathers, assume attack positions, and then leap forward.  Is this dancing?  Yet even in courtship dances, the movements may convey both desire and danger, seduction and joust.  Birds, it’s been said, are lovers, not fighters, but they may be both at the same time.  As Chris Leahy explains in The Birdwatcher’s Companion, one theory is that avian courtship displays “have evolved out of half-realized movements made by birds in ambivalent situations”—ambivalence, that is, “between attraction to a potential mate and aggression toward a potential rival.”  A dance, Leahy says, may include “displacement activities,” such as preening or presenting nest material, “that over time have become integrated into the courtship ceremony.”  What seems like a ballet of pure arousal might better be described as a channeling of potentially destructive energy, a means of conflict resolution, or a dance that answers a question.  Fight, flee, or mate?  Not that human dancing is so different.  Watch a show like So You Think You Can Dance and you’ll be struck by how many dances, especially contemporary dances, enact a drama of attraction, retreat, and reconciliation, or the failure of reconciliation.  Perhaps the dancing of my arhythmic college girlfriend befuddled me because I couldn’t decipher her intent.  Was she advancing, retreating, provoking, or merely oblivious?  Should I fight, flee, or mate?  Sometimes a dance answers the question.  Sometimes it amplifies the ambivalence.

Which bird species are the best dancers?  It is, presumably, a purely human question.  Courting birds may want to out-compete their same-species rivals, but they rarely show interest in the mating antics of other species.  Nonetheless, it would be entertaining to stage an all-bird So You Think You Can Dance with contestants from avian families around the world.  Of course the celebrities—that is, birds celebrated by people–would have to be invited.  There’s Snowball, the head-bopping, crest-flaring sulphur-crested cockatoo whose You Tube dances to human songs, those of the Backstreet Boys in particular, have led researchers to theorize that the ability to keep a beat is found only in birds, mainly parrots, with the capacity to imitate sound.  Another popular You Tube video stars an unnamed red-capped manakin sliding backwards along a branch, with a Michael Jackson soundtrack and a dancing woman who demonstrates how to imitate the manakin moonwalk.  Fifteen more potential contestants can be found on “These Birds Can Dance,” a video collection of “titillating mating dances” by wide-ranging species including the blue-footed booby, Gouldian finch, ostrich, Clark’s grebe, and superb bird-of-paradise.

Different bird species have traditions of both song and dance, with regional variations or a talent for mimicry that indicate what biologists call “neural plasticity,” but their approaches to dance cannot be categorized into well-defined styles such as those used in standard ballroom competitions—waltz, Latin, quick step.  However, it would probably make sense to split any dancing bird competitors into two basic groups, the couples’ dancers and lek dancers.  In lekking species, which come from fourteen families of birds worldwide, the males gather in a group to perform complex dances in a display arena, or lek, a word derived from the Swedish leka, or sex play.  The females don’t dance but watch, judging, until one by one they select what they consider the most impressive dancing male.  “For the male,” says Edward O. Wilson in his description of a sharp-tailed grouse lek, “everything turns on prowess on the display ground.”  In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, David Sibley notes that male success is “extremely variable among members of a lek,” a way of saying that when it comes to the goal of the dance—consummation—most participants are out of luck.  Lekking tends to be a winner-take-all proposition.  Males feud to gain and hold the best display territories, and often the vast majority of females will choose the same mate.  The losers may gain a revenge of sorts.  “Failure to consummate copulations because of disruption,” says ornithologist Frank Gill, “is one of the major liabilities of joining an aggregation of eager males.”  In contrast to the picky females, lekking males show “little selectivity,” to use Sibley’s phrase, in choosing partners.  They will mate with any and all comers–a point which human females may consider proof of a general tendency in the male animal.  Further proof may be found in the fact that sperm is the lekking male’s only contribution to parenting.  Females of these species raise their offspring without male assistance.

Lekking was among the phenomena that led Charles Darwin to the idea of sexual selection: the theory that features such as brilliant colors, lavish plumage, and dramatic displays have evolved not because they are useful in survival but because female birds, and females of some other species, have favored these features in selecting mates.  “To suppose that the females do not appreciate the beauty of the males,” Darwin wrote, “is to admit that their splendid decorations, all their pomp and display, are useless; and this is incredible.”  The theory was long resisted by various critics, some feeling that it disparaged females as frivolous, others contending that it granted too much evolutionary weight to female “caprice.”  How, the critics asked, can a mere dance convey a bird’s genetic fitness?  How can otherwise sensible females be taken in by pompous, puffed-up males who are just showing off?  Are female birds aesthetes, loving beauty for beauty’s sake, even though their preferences may lead to the evolution of features, like the peacock’s tail, longer and longer with each generation, that might handicap their offspring in escaping from predators?  Current explanations of female choice, as summarized by Helena Cronin in The Ant and the Peacock, range from the theory of “runaway” female taste—fashion preferences escalating out of control–to the claim that lekking dance marathons do in fact proclaim genetic fitness by giving proof of endurance and the ability to dominate rivals.

Studies of leks have also contributed to theories about the relation between sound and movement in birds and the origins of cooperative behavior.  For instance, one oddity of some dancing manakin species, like the swallow-tailed manakin, is that a dominant male will be joined by helper males, who play back-up to his lead, with coordinated team jumps, until they eventually bow out of the dance, before copulation.  What’s in it for them?  Are they just biding their time?  The answer may help to explain one of the great mysteries of biology, the evolution of altruism.  In The Singing Life of Birds, Donald Kroodsma observes that among hummingbirds, and perhaps cotingas, the ability to “learn” songs—rather than produce song without going through a learning stage–has been documented only in species that lek.  The ability of birds to dance in a certain way—in a lek or, like Snowball, in time with human-generated rhythms—may provide clues not only about the development of avian brain systems for learning song but also about the evolution of human dialects and language itself.

Lekking birds tend to be great dancers, almost by definition, but any selection of competitors could not leave out the Andean cock-of-the-rock, from the cotinga family of South and Central America.  Slightly larger than an American robin, this outlandish creature is a day-glo reddish orange, with a body that seems to merge with its head, intense yellow eyes placed high on the side of the head, and a puffy frontal fan that often covers its beak and makes the bird appear mouth-less as well as neck-less.  Its dance, performed mornings and afternoons for weeks on end during the breeding season, consists of bows, head bobs, push-ups, profile poses, and 180 degree about-face spins, accompanied by clucks and harsh, nasal squawks.  Rival males squabble, guard their ground, and interfere with one another as the drabber brown females approach and the dance grows more frantic.  Sometimes copulation is preceded by a chase—a flaming orange male jetting through a ravine in pursuit of a mate.

Our contestants would also have to include a few members of the manakin family, though the choice seems arbitrary, dependent on one’s taste in manakin dance styles.  One personal favorite is the long-tailed manakin of Costa Rica, a tiny black bird with a scarlet crown patch, sky blue back, and streaming tail feathers the length of its torso.  Its dance combines explosive wing snaps and “to-le-do” calls with pinwheel spins, butterfly flutters, feather puffing, and ricocheting leapfrog hops.  Other manakin dancers will hang upside down, moonwalk, slide down branches firefighter-style, or tempt females with quick, subtle tactile stimulation.  In some species, duos and trios will practice without females present.  The climax of a manakin dance, copulation, is often so brief that humans need slow-motion film to witness it.

Among North American species, the most renowned lek dancers belong to the grouse family.  The multi-media display of the greater sage-grouse mixes wing swishes and loud, popping vocals with plumage ruffling and an enormous inflation of its brilliant white breast and throat.  Its cousin, the sharp-tailed grouse, the Energizer Bunny of the Western prairie, inflates its purple neck sac and skitters helter-skelter like a wind-up toy run amok, with occasional breaks to beat its rivals with its wings or pull out their feathers.  The greater prairie-chicken, whose scientific name roughly translates as “drumming love-god chicken,” also skitters, leaps, and struts while blowing air out of its esophageal sac to produce a resonant “boom” that demonstrates why a lekking arena is sometimes called a booming ground.  Christopher Cokinos describes the prairie-chickens as “the professional wrestlers of the bird realm.”  Like other lekkers, they will assume threat postures and skirmish with adversaries, but they “prefer choreography to harm.”

Lekking species include some of the avian world’s most frenzied, flamboyant dancers, but, from a human perspective, their dancing may not offer much sense of the romance, or kind concern, that we associate with the term “pair-bonding.”  To the extent that there is any human equivalent, a lek is the crudest of singles’ bars, all show and cut to the chase, without the conversational gambits or slightest pretense of commitment.  We are not a lekking species, Matt Ridley says in The Red Queen, but are “more like terns, who choose mates that can fish well, than sage-grouse hens, who copy one another’s choice of a fast-displaying male.”  With avian couples’ dancers it’s easier to be anthropomorphic, attributing romance to the dance, though, as Chris Leahy points, the “displays of affection” in a bonding pair of birds “may lack the emotional depth imputed to them by some humans.”  Few birds literally mate for life, and couples’ dances often incorporate practical elements suggesting that, in seeking Mr. Right, females want a good provider, at least for that breeding season.  Courting terns, for instance, may sway, plunge, or bank together in the air, all in apparent ecstasy, but, as Ridley notes, the male will also offer the female a fish to provide proof of his usefulness.

In judging the quality of couples’ dances, a fair contest might divide the contestants according to where they dance: on land, in the water, and in the air.  (We might also need a special category for the gender-bending dances of polyandrous species, like phalaropes and jacanas, in which the traditional male/female roles of dancer and judge are reversed.)  For the land dancers’ competition, one good prospect would be the “beep-beep” greater roadrunner, from the deserts of Mexico and the southwestern United States.  The male runs, prances, pops his wings, fans his tail.  Male and female chase each other, often pacing the dance with an interlude to enjoy a dust bath together.  In copulation, the male may mount the female with a mouse in his mouth, a post-coital gift before he sprints off.

Another personal favorite is the black-capped donacobius of the Amazonian basin, a handsome black-and-tan species with its own genus, neither wren nor thrush nor mockingbird but reminiscent of all three.  The day we found the birds—a pair—my wife and I, with six other birders, were waiting out a sudden downpour, huddled on a small, soggy island in the shack of a kindly local farmer.  They were perched close atop a bush, the donacobius couple, courting in an antiphonal duet—singing, Gene Kelly-like, in the rain.  Back and forth they sang and swayed, twisting and turning to the rhythms of Brazilian rain, with the tight synchronization of champion samba partners.  We couldn’t help but dance with them.

Among the water dancers, we’d need at least one representative of the grebe family, perhaps the great crested grebe of Eurasia and Africa.  A grebe couples’ dance intertwines solo virtuosity with tightly synchronized tandem tableaux.  The male crouches, in exaggerated mimicry of a cat about to pounce.  Male and female join in a “penguin dance,” in which they seem to stand together in the water.  They shake their heads, exchange gifts of weedy vegetation, and then face each other in a perfect mirror image.

As for the air dancers, well, I’m sorry, but I’ve already decided on the victor.  It has to be some species of hummingbird.  Other bird families may move nicely through space, circling, gliding, swooping, but it’s hard to beat a bird that can do it all, and do it ten times faster—oscillating, bee-zipping, helicoptering up, backwards and sideways, inscribing the air with arcs and loop-the-loops while its heart beats 20 times a second.  From the perspective of wing-less, earthbound humans, air-dancing might seem to stretch the definition of what could reasonably be called dance, but we should remember that many human dance “steps” have been inspired by flight-envy.  The dance of any animal is constrained and to some extent dictated by the animal’s anatomy, the capacity of its body to move this way but not that way.  Some birds, like grebes and hummingbirds, can barely walk on ground, much less dance.  To dance with jazz hands, one needs hands.

Unlike humans, birds don’t choose to dance, or not dance.  Some families, like Western Hemisphere tanagers and wood warblers, perform displays that could scarcely be called dances—maybe a bit of unpretentious hopping, with sound effects– but seem to rely instead on gorgeous plumage to attract mates.  Others, like some relatively drab wrens and thrushes, neither dance nor flash eye-popping colors but woo mainly through enticing serenades.  But for those birds that must dance, the stakes are high, and bad dancing spells disaster, at least in the Darwinian sense of reproductive success.  People also dance to show our sexual stuff, just as we sing and dress for success, but for us the reproductive pressure to dance well is much weaker.  The arrhythmic among us can compensate in other ways, like words, to display our fitness for the mating game.

The most celebrated human dancers have often been the innovators, from the pioneers of modern dance to the perpetrators of popular dance crazes, like Chubby Checker and the Twist.  The instinctive basis of bird dancing suggests that birds lack our ability to innovate, but we don’t know that for sure.  The origins of animal courtship rituals are lost in evolutionary time, but all extant birds have evolved from some common ancestor, and over millions of years they have managed to come up with an astonishing array of dance maneuvers.  Along the way, individual birds must have performed a succession or combination of moves never before attempted.  Others may have mimicked them and set a trend, the avian equivalent of the Macarena.  There’s the Manakin Moonwalk, the Hummingbird Helicopter, the Woodcock Whistling Twitter.  To know whether birds ever experiment with dance styles, we’d have to observe a great number of them, from a wide variety of families, as they dance their lives away–a daunting task, especially given that some bird families, like nightjars, do their dancing in the dark.  For birds it takes at least two to tango, and, as far as I know, there’s no evidence that birds ever dance alone, for the sheer joy of it, but we can’t rule out the possibility.  In her discussion of the purposes of play, Natalie Angier says, “Nothing in nature arises because it is fun, although much that we need to do ends up feeling so good that we’re inspired to keep doing it.”

In Biophilia, Edward O. Wilson claims that scientists will eventually be able to explain the exact process by which neurons produce the electric commands that culminate in the courtship dances of birds-of-paradise.  He worries that such an explanation will be “turned into a metaphor of what humanists dislike most about science: that it reduces nature and is insensitive to art.”  His worry, I think, is unfounded.  We may someday grasp the neural basis and mechanics of bird dance, but we will still be left with the mystery of why birds, and humans, are driven to dance in the first place.  “As played out in birds,” John Hay writes in The Way to the Salt Marsh, “the planetary rhythms have a supremacy which cannot be violated or reduced.”  Science, including the theories of evolutionary biology, will never fully answer the questions posed by the arts—why Frankenstein is drawn to music, why men are entranced by the dancing of women well past their child-bearing years, or why Franz Kafka, after a long struggle and in apparent defiance of a genetic mandate, chose to forego reproduction and dedicate his life to telling stories.

An old joke asks the question: “Why don’t Baptists have sex?”  The answer: “Because it might look like they’re dancing.”  Dancing birds are not oblivious to the critical judgments of their observers—males on a lek certainly seek signs that the females approve—but as far as we can tell, they aren’t troubled by self-consciousness about the moral or aesthetic qualities of their performance.  They might miss out on the pleasure of self-admiration experienced by a juvenile human male as he struts and prances while playing air guitar in the mirror, but they’re also spared the worrisome question that might keep this boy off the dance floor at his prom: Do I dance like a dork?


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