VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
For information about listening to Vermont Public Radio, please go here.

Timeline: Born To Dance

"Why do humans dance? We dance because we can. Because dance is who we are. Because dance is what our bodily selves do."
U.S. Public Domain
Javon Swaby - Pexels
"Why do humans dance? We dance because we can. Because dance is who we are. Because dance is what our bodily selves do."

You’re at a wedding reception, this song starts to play and suddenly the dance floor is full of people moving together in rhythm. The crowd intuits the pulse of the music, corporately agrees on where the beat is and starts to move together. That’s how group dance works. This ability is something we share as humans and with other members of the animal kingdom. But do we ever think about what it takes to make this happen? How do we dance together and why?


JAMES: To answer these questions I asked a friend here at VPR for a little bit of help.

TY: My name is Ty Robertson.

JAMES: I asked Ty to watch a video from a couple of years ago and report to us what she saw.

TY: I just saw a robot that made me think maybe it was dog at first and then later on it seemed like a horse. It was listening to music and it was dancing. What was really interesting was that every time the music changed the robot would dance in ways that looked very much like the ways humans dance.

Part of me wants to think that it actually was feeling the music and, of course, I don’t believe that’s true; because it’s a machine and it only knows as much as it’s been told. I don’t know that you can transmit a feeling to a machine. It’s really awesome though. I love that critter. What’s it called again?

JAMES: It’s called a dancing ANYmal made by the company ANYbotics in Switzerland. They specialize in autonomous robotics for industrial applications. Sending these mechanized “critters” as Ty calls them into environments that are unsafe for humans.

The fact that this company spent so much time creating a version of their highly-advanced robot that can listen, analyze and dance to any music in real-time shows how complex a task it is. As humans, finding the beat comes naturally, it’s ordinary, but the real-life processes involved are extraordinary. On our website you’ll find a link to a 2012 paper by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. This paper goes into detail concerning how artificial intelligence might find the beat and mood of a given piece of music and react to it in real time. To be honest, some of the language in the article goes over my head. You should see the mathematics and computer science involved in making a robot tap its toe.

Why do I bring this up? What does a dancing robot have to do with music changing the world? In 2015, Dr. Kimerer LaMothe wrote an article for Psychology Today titled “Why Do Humans Dance?” Dr. LaMothe expressed this human imperative. “Without the barest ability to notice, recreate, and become patterns of movement, without the ability to invite impulses to move, humans would not be able to learn how to sense and respond to the sources of their wellbeing—to people, to nourishment, to ideas, to environments.”

The ability to listen to outside stimulus, analyze it and respond in real-time is an important part of learning and survival. It’s such a remarkable ability that scientists are doing their best to recreate it through programming and robotics. But it comes naturally to you and me. We jump when we hear alarms or a baby’s cry. We step back when a dog growls or a cat hisses. We listen to each other and we react together. It’s engrained into who we are.

Dr. LaMothe sums it up best. “Why do humans dance? We dance because we can. Because dance is who we are. Because dance is what our bodily selves do. Because dance is how we become who we have the potential or desire or need to be.”

Find out when music changed the world and follow the Timeline.

Related Content