Two wildly popular videos of the last year are “All the Single Babies”, a delighted and spastic baby rockin’ out to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, and the retro-futuristic animation of the Evian “Roller-Babies”, their confident and precocious bodily mastery a somewhat creepy counterpart. These different dancing babies share a common fascination; both are images of dance as relational assemblage and a creative bio-technological evolution.
As Stamatia Portonova notes, dance exists alongside technological, biological and cultural viruses in its irresistible contagiousness; dancing babies are potent carriars. Their history as “autonomous movers” inflects the internet’s contagious mobilities. Recall the early Internet meme (and from Ally McBeal), the 3-D animation animation “Baby Cha-Cha", which condensed complicated questions of reproduction in the era of photorealistic digital effects, spawning an uncanny techno-rhythmic wonder smugly pitted against the ticking of a biological clock.
Recent research ("Tiny Dancers")shows that babies “dance naturally” to music, seeking the beat and experiencing pleasure when they hit it. Often framed as a story of nature, instinct and developing mastery, this research also suggests is that dance is immediately and affectively relational (in “Tiny Dancers”, the babies are “bad dancers”, lacking motor control, but the value of their pleasure in beat-seeking remains a mystery). Rather than the progressive integration of bodily virtuousity, or the nostalgic charm of a now-forgotten learning curve, we might understand dancing babies—both the gleeful fitfulness of “Single Babies” and the swaggering mastery of the Evian babies—as images of the lure of assemblage. Rather than a tendency towards a singular beat (off/on) as measure of success, we repeatedly watch for “the beat” as relational propensity. “Single Babies” is not just bad mimesis; it’s a machinic assemblage of baby, table, the playful counterpull of gravity, a diapered bottom-heaviness sporadically bursting out through dynamic legs, the TV as moving mirror, movement enacted through dispersive connection. Opposing the “natural delights” of “Single Babies’” staccato virtuosity to the controlled babies of the Evian commercial doesn’t take us very far in thinking about the role of movement across media forms. The Evian ad, which composited fully animated bodies with filmed live-action baby heads, repackages water as biotechnical wonder, offering us the engineered bodies to match, but the recoding of cutting-edge image technology via the old school techno-mobility of “Rapper’s Delight” and a boombox complicates a simple question of evolution. Dancing babies are untimely, deviating the metrical march of mastery into the contagious pleasures of technological dance.