At this year’s Artivist Film Festival, one film rises above the current. Together: Dancing with Spinner Dolphins, a three-minute film documenting Barnard alumna, Chisa Hidaka, BC ’86, and her experience dancing with wild dolphins, awarded for Best Short in the Animal Advocacy category. Hidaka took a moment to talk with Bwog about her film, which is being screened at Miller Theater at 6 pm, on January 25th.
Bwog: Where did you shoot the footage for your film?
Hidaka: In the Pacific Ocean. We try not to be too specific about where the locations are. They’re not places where people couldn’t go. We’re not against the activity per se, obviously. But, we also realize that if a flood of people would suddenly show up, it would be really bad.
B: How did you get into working with dolphins and this project specifically?
H: I got inspired by watching a documentary, actually. Robin Williams was the narrator and they go onto this research boat and had this experience with these dolphins. It happens to be the same place where we shot our last film. Of course they also didn’t divulge exactly where it was, so it took me a few years to find out.
B: What’s the research involved in tracking dolphins?
H: Well basically, I figured out what research boat it was, where they were doing the research, whether you can go on that research trip with them or if there are other boats going with them in that area. Once you figure it out, then you have to schedule the time of the year, whether you have the money. It took me a couple of years, actually. Once I went it was amazing because when I got to see the dolphins and I saw how they interacted, I couldn’t help but see their movements as so dance-like. With my background in dance, particularly improvised dance, I go to jams in the city where people are spontaneously dancing and working it out so that they don’t bump into each other. Dolphins are much more organized. They’re really good at synchrony and unison, moving the same way that we are. They’re a little bit more streamlined than us, so it’s easier. And they also have different perceptual abilities. They have a lot more vision than we do, and their skin is much more sensitive to the water, which can transmit another creature’s movement in the water. They have an advantage in moving together so gracefully. I know that we could do better and dance with them.
B: Is it really a dance that they’re doing? Is there an evolutionary impetus for it or is it simply an act done for pleasure?
H:It’s a good question. I mean, I’ve been talking all about how they’re ‘dancing.’ But who knows if they actually have a concept of ‘dance’. But, clearly it’s communicative. Clearly it’s intentional, so they choose to do certain movements and things. It’s not automatic behavior. Those are things that we know based on the research that’s been done on dolphin cognition. They are very aware of themselves. They can control their own behavior. There’s a debate whether we can even, but they have the same type of sophistication that we do that enables us not simply react to something, but exercise some kind of choice. So, they have this intentional communicative movement. Who knows if they think it’s beautiful? But certainly to us, we think it’s beautiful. That in my book is dance.
B: Why do dolphins move together?
H: A lot of the times it’s clear that they’re playing. They do funny things, like, take a piece of seaweed and play Keepaway with each other. Sometimes they’ll bump into each other on purpose. Some of it is something they developed as a way to survive. You’ll see the calf moving in perfect sync with his or her mother, otherwise they can get lost in steam. The mom can’t actually carry the baby along, so from a very young age, dolphins have to learn this technique. As you know dolphins use sonar or echolocation. Sometimes dolphins will get really close to each other and utilize, in a sense, eavesdrop, on the other one’s echolocation. Only one has to make the sound, and both can see what that sound means. I think that’s why they’re so good at moving together. This synchronous movement is an expression of affiliation. And amazingly, when we do that to them, they seem to get it. When we try to move with them, they understand. And we understand because we do it. Aside from them, we use mimicry and synchrony in our movement more than any other animal. Even though there’s a term to ‘ape’ or the idiom, ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do,’ actually we do ‘monkey see, monkey do’ much more than monkeys. We seem to share that with dolphins.
B: Who leads and who follows?
H: It’s miraculous that this type of synchronous movement can happen between species. A lot of the time, you may approach the dolphin, you think you’re following them, but then you start to realize that they’re sometimes following you. Another one may come in and dance with you. You’re often behind them, but a lot of the time, they’re following you because they can see behind themselves. They seem to know that you can’t. They’re rostrum is ahead of you, but they’re actually looking back at you and seeing where you go, because their eyes can see about 180 degrees. They’re kind of leading and following at the same time. They’re amazing. There are many times when you’re swirling around with them, and then you come up to the surface and realize, “Oh yeah, I guess I do need to breathe.” They are very intuitive and you can get into a rhythm with them very easily.
B: Do you have to train your lungs to hold your breath for long periods of time?
H: I have trained. Free-diving is a whole competitive sport and I don’t do it that level. I have taken a course with one of the world champion free-divers and you learn breath-holding technique. Most of it is really relaxation. The more you can relax, the longer you can hold your breath because your heart slows down and your normal respiration rate slows down. Our movement under water is shaped by that necessity. Insofar as it is dance, there is a style. That style is quite functional and it has to be really efficient without huge amounts of effort. The dolphins are also very sensitive. They can tell if you’re relaxed or not. They’re chill if you’re chill. If you go fast, they go fast.
B: How deep do you go in the water?
H: You sometimes forget because you’re dancing so much, but we get in 30-70 feet of water.
B: Did you go into the film as an animal advocate?
H: You know, I didn’t really. I didn’t go into the film thinking that I wanted to tell people all the bad things that are happening to dolphins or anything like that. But after spending so much time with them…I mean they’re so trusting. There’s no other species that will give you their time, sometime hours, playing together in the wild. It’s a great experience and you can’t help leaving it feeling grateful. When you have these experiences with these amazing creatures, you can’t help but feel respectful. I grew up in the city, which is pretty human-centric. Animals are our pets, our food. But then when you look into the eyes of the dolphin in the wild, you can’t help but being shaken.
B: You’re working on another film, correct?
H: Yes, we’re hoping to make it feature length. We want to showcase what is known about them scientifically and what that all suggests. There’s a book out there by Thomas White called In Defense of Dolphins. He’s an ethicist. He argues that dolphins have all of the attributes that we consider are necessary for a being to be a person. Given that, what kind of rights should we be affording to dolphins and probably other animals that share the same cognitive complexity. A lot of chimps and even birds have complex ways of thinking and feeling due to socializing, which means they are social citizens. Within that social context, they don’t have preset reactions, but modulating their behavior in a social context. That essentially means you’re a citizen, a moral being. If that’s true and they’re acting like that within their own societies, we shouldn’t be treating them the way we do. Once I did this project, it opened my eyes to all these things that I had never thought about that.
B: Do other animals dance?
H: There are schools of fish and birds that have beautiful choreography. With birds, there’s some evidence that they make some choices. Any herd animal has a group intelligence, which shows that they can work at least in a functionally efficient way. I don’t know because I haven’t checked it out, but I don’t know if they would be as welcoming as dolphins.
B: What would you say to the Columbia community?
H: I’ve had a really circuitous course. I was a dance major, but I was also a pre-medical student. After four years in the dance world, I went to medical school. I went into Orthopedics and had a musculo-skeletal research lab for ten years. Even though that is not directly related to what I’m doing now, I think I had this whole life where I learned a scientific approach and that certainly informs this work a lot. We’re really guided by the best research. In terms of advice, if you know what you want to do, that in itself is a huge, great thing. But even if you don’t, if you dive into things 100 percent, you’ll get something out of it.
Dolphins dancing via Dolphin Dance Project