Local Lifestyle

Thursday, Apr 18 2013 01:57 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Even sea lions gotta dance sometimes

By The Bakersfield Californian

Not that I would need an excuse to visit Santa Cruz, now that my daughter and daughter-in-law have moved to that delightful community, but there is another reason. I'd love to go there and meet Ronan, the dancing sea lion. Ronan has made history, as scientists at UC Santa Cruz have successfully taught her to bob her head in time to music.

This may seem like a silly way for grown researchers to spend their days, but it's quite a breakthrough: in the past, only humans and parrots were thought to be able to keep a beat. Ronan is the first non-human mammal known to groove to the music.

Ronan's trainers, according to graduate student Peter Cook, began by teaching Ronan to bob her head continuously. Next they taught her to bob on cue whenever she heard any sound. They then introduced Ronan to the metronome, and rewarded her whenever her head-bobbing matched its rhythm. Gradually, Ronan was able to rock out in perfect time to the Backstreet Boys. What a sea lion will do for a fish!

I happen to know many of the lyrics to BSB songs, thanks to my oldest daughter's obsessive playing of their songs in the house and the car during their heyday in the 1990s (see what parents miss in this brave new age of iPods and earbuds?). I once knew all of the Boys' first names, as well as their most exciting dance moves. Hearing the Boys on the radio during the story about the dancing sea lion -- "Everybody ... yeah ... rock your body ... yeah ..." -- brought back many memories of the sound and fury of teenagers in the house. Cook reports that Ronan, while she will dance to BSB, actually prefers Earth, Wind, and Fire, her favorite song being "Boogie Wonderland." I agree with this discerning sea lion: Disco probably is a better choice for expressing one's joyful inner beat than '90s boy bands.

Scott Simon, the radio interviewer, asked Cook if he ever thought Ronan might suddenly break into a spontaneous soft shoe and sing out, like Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain,""Gotta dance!" Cook said no. She is, after all, a research animal, not a circus performer. She has proved the important scientific point that an animal needn't be capable of vocal mimicry in order to keep a beat. But as a former dancer, and forever a dancer at heart, I say: Don't count Ronan out just yet. Once the dancing bug bites, a dancer just has to dance, whatever the music may be. I am reminded of a scene in the movie "The Full Monty," wherein a group of blue-collar workers, who have decided in desperation to train themselves in the art of male stripping in order to earn a living, are standing in the unemployment line. When the song they've been practicing to randomly plays in the office's background music, the budding dancers can't help themselves. One subtly rolls a shoulder to the music, another joins him, another thrusts his hips, until one can't help but bust a move. Gotta dance!

I believe there's a bit of Gene Kelly in all of us humans, and maybe in sea lions, too. Dance is an ancient form of art, a way for the body to express joy or reverence or sorrow, as well as a way of storytelling. Dance has long been used both in sacred ritual and secular celebration, and just about every culture has its own signature steps and customs of dance. Babies often dance before they can walk. Dance is an instinct.

It is only natural for the body to seek a rhythm, because our bodies are rhythmical instruments. Our hearts beat, our blood pumps, our lungs expand, our brain synapses kiss, our pupils dilate, our vocal chords vibrate, our muscles contract in digestion, exertion, orgasm, childbirth. We are creatures of rhythm. When we do a little jig in a moment of pure joy, like the comedian Steve Martin's famous "happy feet," or when we sink into the fetal curl of raw emotional grief that becomes physical, we are expressing the dance that lives within us.

No wonder, then, that the corresponding rhythms that exist in nature all around us soothe us, captivating us with sounds like ocean waves in a tango with the shore, the chirp of crickets, wind in the trees, or rain on the roof. When we dance, we respond to the powerful rhythm of the planet. Dance makes our bodies happy, gladdens our souls, makes us believe, as EWF sings, that "all the love in the world can't be gone ... Dance, Boogie Wonderland, hey hey!" So dance on, Ronan. You go, girl. Dig that crazy beat, and show those researchers how it's done. Sometimes you just gotta dance.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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