Unexpected Virtuosity and the Dancing Cockatiel

Curator's Note

Looking at videos listed under “dance contests” on YouTube, I expected to find a lot of teenagers showing off their moves in local contests. And I did--with lots of different types of dancing and different communities of audiences. In these settings, I imagined that technical virtuosity would take a back seat to style, panache, and plain old chutzpah. But, every once in a while, one of the contestants somewhere would make my jaw drop not just with their overall performance, but with their extraordinary technique. This got me to thinking about finding virtuosity in unexpected places and the sense of amazement that that can produce. Coincidentally, last week a friend in New York forwarded this video to me. It was a clip of Snowball the Cockatiel, dancing to the Back Street Boys singing his favorite song. No one taught him to dance, says the bird rescue website that he represents—he just did it spontaneously himself. Stunningly, Snowball produces many of the hallmarks we associate with a lot of popular dancing in the U.S. today—rhythmic movement, patterned repetitions, accented beats, movement through space, and, in the hip hop mode, stepping, stomping, and complex alternating footwork. It’s all there, accompanied by a screeching shout out right in time with the beat. My jaw dropped and my heart beat a little faster. Was Snowball really “dancing?” And what might it mean if he was? Unexpected virtuosity is all the more stunning because we are unprepared for it, and don’t require it, whereas expected virtuosity (in the professional dance realm, for example) merely confirms what we have come to expect--it pleases but does not amaze. I didn’t expect to find virtuosic dancing (human and otherwise) that would amaze me on YouTube, but I did.


I have to say that my favorite move is not one that could be recognized as human, but the spreading of his comb on his head. I also found him not at all synched rhythmically with the music unti it got to the dance break. Now that was interesting. It seems that our friend has taste and could not handle the singing! Jokes aside, it is not all there, and yeah, he's probably dancing, but doesn't this take us back to Judith Lynne Hanna's book, To Dance is Human? To say that this bird has mastered a dance style which itself is a morass of screened techniques and misrepresentations demonstrates how much hip hop as a movement form is not interrogated in the academy but accepted as a fait accompli. This bird is glorious and definitely working something, but I would caution us to think more specifically about monetized dance forms as cultural products.

Wow, Jane – what a clip! To me, the “unexpected” here is that “The Dancing Cockatiel” evidences a sort of democratization of dance, or even a sort of democratization of the role of the dance critic/historian. Perhaps related to our discussions of reality dance competitions, narrative, and “The American Dream,” “The Dancing Cockatiel” captures our current historical moment where media and technology have enabled anyone with internet access to be an expert in dance – to be able to suggest or explicitly say, “THIS IS DANCE.” Though we might quibble over how to define dance in this forum or in our classrooms, what does it mean that a single viral video might reach more people in 24 hours than any of us might reach throughout our entire careers? Scary. Exciting.

Yes Zachary I too find it remarkable, and thought provoking, that the naming of this as "dance"--the rhetorical act of categorization-- is so effective in facilitating its popularity. I went back to check tonight on YouTube and found that this clip has been viewed 1,800,000 times (not counting those who saw Snowball on David Letterman!) Such ubiquity isn't a real measure of impact necessarily, but perhaps a measure of some sort of desire. Had the clip been titled "screaming bird bobs his head" it probably wouldn't have caught on so much, but the original poster's act of classifying the video as "dance" not only helps frame our perception of the actions as say "aesthetic" or as evidence of kinesthetic pleasure rather than something like avian neurosis, but also casts it into the realm of the extraordinary because the mover is a bird not a human. Watching other snowball wannabes on YouTube brings home too the importance not just of whether or not this rendition of (bird) body movement and music cross some imagined threshold of categorization into "dance," but also what type of dance is referenced through the specific movement and music. Here is where public discourse and the social and commercial aspects of the referenced dance style, as Ana notes, become important. Had Snowball been "dancing" the polka, I doubt those 1.8 million viewers would have tuned in. And finally, back to the "reality" show idea...that presumed evidentiary nature of the video is crucial, isn't it, to the effect.

Jane, there are few things that can leave me near-speechless, but you really managed to find one here. Wow. So you think your cockatiel can dance? But the real question, (or so we seem to have concluded in the thread), is not whether Snowball is "really" dancing, or whether he's dancing well or badly, but (as you rightly suggest, Jane) the desires that lie behind our all-too human investments in watching and anthropomorphizing Snowball's movements. Maybe that's why I found myself paying attention to the disembodied human voices in the background of the video, cheering Snowball on and expressing obvious pleasure and delight in the moment. But what are these voices expressing delight in? The bird? I think not. My guess is that their delight has more to do with the successful video capture of a performance that appears to naturalize popular culture. But it does more than that. It also naturalizes the commercial appropriations of dance styles that have become unmoored from their origins to become global commodities (picking up on Anna's comment). So, it's nice when animals inadvertently perform the ideological work of the culture industries. I hope Snowball is getting residuals.

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