Arts & Culture News

The Biggest TikTok Star in North Texas Is a Dallas Zoo Gorilla Named Zola

Silverback gorilla Zola is breaking the internet with his sick moves.
Silverback gorilla Zola is breaking the internet with his sick moves. Cathy Burkey/Dallas Zoo
One local TikTok star is earning massive internet fame without having to join in on the app's dangerous #MilkCrate challenge or by committing felonies by vandalizing school property. The biggest TikTok star in Dallas — and we really mean biggest — is Zola, a silverback gorilla from the Dallas Zoo whose videos have gone viral. Twice.

Zola is earning fans for his "breakdancing" moves, celebrating as he plays in water. The internet first went ape-shit for Zola in 2017 after his keepers at the Dallas Zoo posted a video of the gorilla dancing in a tub of water with the grace of a synchronized swimmer, spinning and flailing his arms.

That video earned a couple of million views on different platforms, but it was a pre-TikTok era, as the zoo’s communications manager (and Observer contributor) Chelsey Norris points out.
“It's been shared so many times — we still have people reach out asking to use it for things,” Norris says of the original video. “Most recently, Green Day used it in their music video 'Father of All.’”

The video for the punk-rock band, released in 2019, includes various forms of dancing, karate-fighting, skateboarding and other instances of dynamic movement along with footage of a dog skating and a brief clip of Zola spinning in his blue tub.

The latest video showing Zola monkeying around was made by the zoo’s staff photographer, Josiah Sage, and shows Zola once again playing in water and doing his signature spin. There was no music around when Zola did his dance, but Sage added the '80s song “I’m a Maniac” to the video and uploaded it to the zoo's TikTok page.

“No music needed,” Norris says. “Just add water, and Zola is ready for a solo dance party.”

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Maniac (Flashdance Version) (Re-Recorded / Remastered) - Michael Sembello

The zoo is also using a bit of Lil Nas X-type tactics to satisfy Zola's fandom. Norris says they have already posted a "remix" version of the video to Instagram and TikTok.

We sent dancer Avery-Jai Andrews, a graduate of New York University and a dancing instructor, the video for her professional analysis of Zola’s technique. She says Zola gave her "inspiration."

"Quite a spectacular trick," Andrews says. "The dance nerd in me is in awe of Zola's center of gravity and how he keeps the momentum controlled while vigorously moving his arms. Like, whoa, can I get some of that? But mostly, Zola is a beautiful example of how play, fun and curiosity spur movement and maybe some pretty cool moves that you never knew you could do but exist naturally in the body. This video is pure joy and liberation."

Since it was posted on Sept. 24 in honor of World Gorilla Day, the video has been viewed almost 12 million times just on TikTok. It’s also posted on the zoo’s YouTube channel and other social media pages.

Norris says the zoo now has an additional 100,000 online followers.

Zola was born in 2002 and moved to Dallas from the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada, in 2013, when he was 11. He now lives in a spacious bachelor pad with his half-brother Shana and two other males of a similar age.

Dallas Zoo senior zoologist Cristina Powers says Zola's dancing is unquestionably a sign of joy.

“When you look at him doing those videos his face looks extremely happy," she says. "So that's for us to know what gorilla behavior is like: his mouth is open in a relaxed way, and you know, he's just basically having fun.”

It's rare for a gorilla to even dance at all, Powers says, let alone have a signature move.

"I wouldn't say necessarily, you know, everyone has their signature move," Powers says with a laugh, "but Zola is the one that seems to be more playful out of everybody."

Zola likes a slippery dance floor and seems to only want to dance when he gets to play in water.

"Yes, it seems to be a thing that when the floor is wet or water is running, he will do that," Powers says. "And he does have an outdoor water feature, but I don't know if it's just ...  it's concrete or what, the difference is that he doesn't seem to want to do that outside, but he will do that every now and then inside.“

"He sort of ... he builds momentum,” adds Linda King, a mammal supervisor at the Dallas Zoo. “He starts out just kind of patting the water and making a little noise and then he starts splashing a little and then he starts sliding back and forth. And then he kind of picks up the pace until it gets to the spinning mode.”

Powers and King say Zola shows his personality with other quirks.

"He might just rub his face in a funny way," Powers says. "I mean, we would call them his ‘silly behaviors,’ He will do some things that are like ... he’ll pull on a plant, a piece of plant and just wave it around. He’s definitely the funniest of all of them."

They also say that Zola's online fame has attracted more visitors to the Dallas institution.

"Yeah, people ask," King says of those who come to see the internet star in person. "And sometimes we'll even mention it. If he happens to be up near a viewing area and doing something, we’ll mention, 'Well, you know, if you look for ‘dancing gorilla' on social media, you will meet Zola."

The zoo isn't certain whether Zola’s breakdancing is a bit of original choreography or he was taught to spin or learned by watching Flashdance too many times.

"That started back when he was in Calgary Zoo," Powers says. "And we don't know specifically if he learned from somebody else or he just decided to do that on his own. It's definitely ... it's not something that he learned here. He already came knowing how to do that."

Powers hopes that people viewing the videos aren't under the impression that what they're seeing is Zola's home.

"The video was filmed in an indoor space and that is not where he is at all day," she says. "In fact, that's just one of the indoor spaces that they have, so it just happens to be, you know, where he was at that time when they put down a hose for him to play. But he does have, with the others, a pretty big habitat and also even bigger rooms inside. So that's not just, you know, where he lives basically.

"We do a lot of what we call environmental enrichment for all our animals and that provides choices and opportunities for them so that they keep their minds active as well as their bodies. So this was a huge hit."

King says that Zola's video has become so ubiquitous she's stumbled upon it while turning on the TV.

"That's the first thing that comes on when my mom and I just happened to turn [the news] on," she says. "And they were showing him dancing in his new pool and I was just like, 'I know that man.'"
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Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio