Swing and Sway the Chimpanzee Way

Chimpanzees swing and sway to sounds in a form of proto-dance. Find out how this is shedding light on the origins of humanity’s universal art of the dance.

My brother got married when I was eleven years old. Since I was to be one of the groomsmen, my mother took it upon herself to teach me to dance. The bride paired me with a bridesmaid who was about my age and height.

I had never met seen her before the wedding rehearsal, and I’ve never seen her since. I do remember that she was a pretty blonde and that she was charming but shy. I wish I could remember her name.

The dance seemed to go well; I had a grasp of how to lead, and at least I didn’t step on her toes or do anything blatantly clumsy. As the precocious youngsters on this grown-up occasion, we were crowd-pleasers. The other crowd pleasers that night were my aunt and uncle who showed that they could still swing and sway to Glen Miller’s In the Mood.


My mom wasn’t the only person who sensed the importance of dance as part of social customs. Dancing is universal in all cultures. In most societies, there are two kinds of dance–performance and participatory. Performance dancers provide a spectacle for an audience to enjoy, as in a ballet or a chorus line.

Participatory dancers take part in group activities with a common goal, usually social interaction. There isn’t an audience as such for a participatory dance. My experience at the wedding was an example of a participatory dance. The two categories aren’t entirely distinct, though.

The tradition of having the bride and groom dance alone while the guests observe is a blend of performance and participatory dance. So is having only the wedding party dance to the second song. To a degree, the novelty of a child couple like my partner and I was partially a performance, telling the story that a new generation was on its way. My aunt and uncle told the story that the older generation could still swing and sway with the upstarts.


We don’t need to have music to dance, but we usually prefer to have it. Dancing and rhythmic sounds entangle one another intimately. Music has strong and weak beats, and we tend to respond to it with alternating energetic and gentle movements of our muscles.

People have danced for as long as anybody can remember. In China, pottery from neolithic times shows a form of line dancing with hand-holding. The most archaic Chinese word for dance appears on the fortune-telling oracle bones used in the Shang dynasty. Asian sorcerers and shamans relied on dance in their rituals.

There are paintings depicting dances on the walls of the rock shelters in Bhimbelka, India, from 9,000 years ago. We can also see people swing and sway the Egyptian way in 3,300-year-old Egyptian tomb paintings.


Dancing, especially performance dancing, is a form of storytelling. Before people could write, they needed other ways to preserve the plot of their folk tales. One way was to capture elements of the story in the swing and sway of their body movements. Performance dances are one way that cultures passed down narratives from one generation to the next.

As in China, other indigenous cultures also link dances with trance states. We can see this from the Amazon to the Kalahari and everywhere in between. The leading Greek philosophers all mention dancing. So do the Torah and the Talmud. The Bible includes 30 different terms connected to the art of the dance in Hebrew and Greek.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week tells us that dancing may go back much farther than anyone realized. It seems to predate even our species. Primatologists Yuko Hattori and Masaki Tomonaga of Kyoto University were working with chimpanzees.


Professor Hattori was trying to teach a female chimp how to keep a beat. She did this by tapping a piano note on an electronic keyboard. The experiment went pretty much as expected, but that’s not where her discovery came from. Like so many scientific breakthroughs, this one was accidental.

Unbeknownst to Hattori, the chimp’s son was in the next room. He could hear the beat, and he began to dance by making a swaying motion. The mother chimp demanded a reward for her exercise. Strangely, her son began to swing and sway his body with no expectation of a treat. The younger chimp was engaging with the sound for its own sake.

After some further analysis, Hattori and Tomonaga concluded that chimpanzees respond to both rhythmic and arrhythmic sounds by dancing. Some of their peers, like cognitive biologist Andrea Ravignaniat of the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre, believe that these findings may shed light on the origins of human dancing.


After their initial, accidental discovery, Hattori and Tomonaga formalized their approach. They chose a group of three male and four female chimps. They played two minute sound clips of evenly timed piano notes to them. Responding to the sound, the apes would swing and sway back and forth as in the first case.

They also displayed even more intriguing behaviours. Some of the chimpanzees tapped their fingers or toes. Others seemed to be trying to sing. They would howl in a way that they seemed to connect to the sounds to which they were responding. Every one of the apes displayed a sense of rhythm, although the males were more active than the females.

One chimp, whose name was Akira, was especially inclined to dance. The researchers chose him for a more in-depth experiment. This time they played clips with evenly spaced notes and randomly spaced notes. Akira didn’t mind. He would bust a move to either sound pattern.

chimps’ indifference to rhythm is striking

Akira’s indifference to rhythm is striking. Humans take no interest in dancing to arrhythmic sounds. Even tiny infants are much more inclined to move to rhythmic rather than random beats. For example, children instinctively dance to singing but not to everyday speech.

As Jane Goodall explains in her book Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe, for an authentic understanding of primate behavior, we need to observe them in the wild. Field researchers have noticed a similar phenomenon in wild chimpanzees. When it rains, they will swing and sway and prance around in response to the sounds they hear. Professor Hattori believes that these movements, in response to ambient sounds, could be “the beginning of the evolution of dance.”

Professor Raviginani concurs but feels that our human tendency to match our movements to rhythmic sound is a crucial consideration. He points out that, “One of the key differences between us and our closest living relatives might be that somewhere in our evolutionary history, these two things got connected.”

chimps have defined dance moves

A separate study adds a remarkable wrinkle to this story. Professor Adriano Lameira, a primatologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Warwick, has found that chimpanzees don’t just dance. They have defined dance moves.

Professor Lameira has watched captive chimpanzees doing “ritualized dance-like behaviour between two captive chimpanzees – synchronized bipedalism.” These “dance steps” are not random. Observers can see the pattern and predict it ahead of time.

The chimps’ movements have set phases that they both follow. The timing of these dance moves is rigorous. The chimps take turns, deciding who should “lead” before they begin to swing and sway again. This activity seems to have no practical purpose other than social bonding.

makes cultures more cohesive by releasing stress

This activity is dance-like, but not everyone would recognize it as dance. Lameira calls it “proto-dance.” He argues that the synchronized gate and mutual touch involved make cultures more cohesive by releasing stress.

Snoopy, from the Peanuts comic strip, was fond of the saying “to live is to dance, and to dance is to live,” as he joyfully did his distinctive solo dance. Dancing means more to some of us than to others, but we can all agree that it’s a universal human experience. We’ll never fully understand humanity until we unravel the origins of the art of the dance.

Snoopy - Swing and Sway the Chimpanzee Way

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Science Magazine (AAAS)
Rhythmic swaying induced by sound in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)
Coupled whole-body rhythmic entrainment between two chimpanzees
Hunter Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution
Music is Universal After All, Harvard Study Finds
Rock Art Depicts Oldest Story Ever Told
Beauty and the Brain

2 thoughts on “Swing and Sway the Chimpanzee Way

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s