What's the Deal With Hippo Ballerinas?

Danish artist Bjørn Okholm Skaarup's 'Hippo Ballerina' statue will grace New York City's Dante Park near Lincoln Center. Cecilia Bonn Marketing and Communications

From major motion pictures to tiny Etsy shops, hippo ballerinas are everywhere. The Singapore Zoo even describes the way pygmy hippos walk as "tiptoeing on the riverbed like ballerinas en pointe."

Hippos and ballerinas are about as opposite as you can get in terms of size, beauty and grace, and that may be precisely why the resulting combination is so humorous — and ironic.

Nowhere is the irony more clear than in New York City near Lincoln Center, where a 15-foot, 2.5-ton, bronze-and-copper hippo ballerina statue now stands. "Hippo Ballerina," the creation of Danish artist Bjørn Okholm Skaarup, pays homage to French artist Edgar Degas’ famous statue, "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," though rolls of hippo torso replace the bony, delicate features of a ballerina-in-training from Degas' statue.

But the sculpture also pays homage to some of the most well-known dancing hippos in pop culture: The “Dance of the Hours” sequence in Disney’s 1940s animated film, "Fantasia," in which a bevy of dancing hippo servants attend to their boss, Hyacinth Hippo, and battle a menacing gang of crocodiles:

“I think a fun way to revitalize themes from art history that have been forgotten lately is through animal allegories, because we are so used to that through animation and fables,” said Skaarup in a press release about this element of NYC's "Art in the Parks" program.

It also offers a perfectly good excuse to tip-toe through a brief history of hippo ballerinas.

The earliest dancing hippo

Obaysch, the first hippopotamus to live at the London Zoo, circa 1870.
Obaysch, the first hippopotamus to live at the London Zoo, in the mid 1800s. ZSL London Zoo

The construct of dancing hippos dates back more than 100 years. One of the earliest recorded references to hippo ballerinas comes from the mid 1800s, when the London Zoo got its first hippopotamus, named Obaysch.

He caused quite the excitement in town, and rumor has it that he inspired a song called the "Hippopotamus Polka. "The "album cover" (so to speak) pictured a pretty young girl dancing with a well-dressed hippopotamus:

'The Hippopotamus Polka'
'The Hippopotamus Polka' was published in the early 1850s by W. Hall & Son. John H. Sherwin/Wikimedia Commons

But we don't know how much dancing is in the cards for Skaarup's "Hippo Ballerina" and her copper tutu. She'll be keeping her eye on Lincoln Center, gracing Broadway through the end of July 2017.