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The Dynamic Dance

The Dynamic Dance

Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes

Barbara J. King

ISBN 9780674015159

Publication date: 11/30/2004

Mother and infant negotiate over food; two high-status males jockey for power; female kin band together to get their way. It happens among humans and it happens among our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, the great apes of Africa. In this eye-opening book, we see precisely how such events unfold in chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas: through a spontaneous, mutually choreographed dance of actions, gestures, and vocalizations in which social partners create meaning and come to understand each other.

Using dynamic systems theory, an approach employed to study human communication, Barbara King is able to demonstrate the genuine complexity of apes' social communication, and the extent to which their interactions generate meaning. As King describes, apes create meaning primarily through their body movements--and go well beyond conveying messages about food, mating, or predators. Readers come to know the captive apes she has observed, and others across Africa as well, and to understand "the process of creating social meaning."

This new perspective not only acquaints us with our closest living relatives, but informs us about a possible pathway for the evolution of language in our own species. King's theory challenges the popular idea that human language is instinctive, with rules and abilities hardwired into our brains. Rather, The Dynamic Dance suggests, language has its roots in the gestural "building up of meaning" that was present in the ancestor we shared with the great apes, and that we continue to practice to this day.


  • In this engaging account of her personal scientific journey, Barbara King discovers the fundamental insight that the common ancestral ground between humans and great apes is the ability to engage in creative communication in which meaning emerges dynamically as individuals co-regulate. This creative ability is the foundation of all forms of communication, including gesture and language, in apes and humans.

    —Alan Fogel, University of Utah


  • Barbara J. King is Chancellor Professor of Anthropology, Emerita, at the College of William and Mary.

Book Details

  • 304 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press