A groove makes listeners want to move, but in order to create this effect the musicians themselves must be moved, and they describe this as a bodily experience rather than something that comes from head knowledge. In his book Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance, musicologist Tiger Roholt gives the analogy of driving your car through snow in the tracks, or grooves, created by other drivers on the road. He writes that you perceive the grooves in the snow through your hands and your body by the resistance of the steering wheel; this is how “you feel the car being pushed, pulled, and carried along.” Groove, he continues, has a similar body feel:
In a musical groove, a musician, dancer, or an engaged listener has a similar feeling of being pulled-into a musical “notch,” guided-onto a musical “track,” buoyed by a rhythm, being lifted up and carried along. Drummers, other musicians, vocalists as well, go to great lengths not only to accurately perform one rhythmic pattern or another but to perform rhythms in such a way that they acquire various qualities of groove, specific qualities of “pushing,” “pulling,” “leaning forward,” being “laid-back,” being “in the pocket,” and so on… Loosely speaking, a groove is the feel of a rhythm.
Finding groove in the body first requires finding the pulse, the reference point for everything that happens in the music.
Finding Equilibrium Through the Music’s Pulse
Roholt argues that movement to the pulse enables both musicians and listeners to feel the relationships between the various elements of the music:
Movement to a pulse has the effect of emphasizing, experientially, the pulse. Insofar as a pulse is regular, bodily expectations are established. Certain musical elements fail to meet these expectations (the early/late eighth notes), and so they seem to push or pull against the expected regular timing. When we are moving to the pulse, we feel these satisfied or thwarted expectations in our bodies…
[M]ovement aids a listeners in establishing a perceptual structure conducive to experiencing a groove. When one grasps a groove, the timing variations show up in experience as motor-intentional tensions against a norm; the norm is the rhythm’s pulse; the tensions are provided by the timing nuances.
So the pulse of the music provides a steadiness against which other musical elements are placed and timed. These relationships can be experienced as pushes and pulls in the body, and one’s movement is a major factor in determining whether (and how) these pushes and pulls are physically felt.
For example, musicians frequently tap their foot, snap their fingers, bob their head, or otherwise engage their body to the music. These movements are not a response to the song, Roholt argues. They are a way of finding the groove in their body so that they can bring it to the sound:
This movement is not directly related to making music… It is commonplace for guitar teachers to tell their students to tap a foot, for instance, because it will help the student keep time or grasp a song’s rhythm. I suggest that this sort of movement is not merely an aid to playing but helps a musician to hear, to grasp a rhythm.
Watch, for example, this performance by Chuck Berry:
What jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham said of his own experience can be said of Chuck Berry: “[P]laying’s like dancing; it’s the movement of the body that inspires you to play. You have to pat your foot; you get a different feeling altogether than when you play not patting your foot.” Jazz pianist and musicologist Vijay Iyer explains that Doc Cheatham “is speaking not of tapping the rhythm he is playing, but tapping the underlying pulse in contrast to what he is playing.”
So the pulse in Chuck Berry’s body allows him to feel the relationships – the pushes and pulls – that make the music groove. And it likely does the same for his audience as well; in addition to their own movement, Berry provides a visual marker that draws their attention to the pulse and other aspects of the groove. Tiger Roholt explains:
The movement draws into the pulse’s wake elements that you previously heard as chaotic, out of sync, or just plain wrong. You now hear the chaotic elements as having fallen into place within the pervasive pushing or pulling quality. And again, the push or the pull (the groove) is the musicians’ intended effect…
With our bodies, we must explore the music by engaging in certain movements that open up the possibility of experiencing a groove’s feel… Note the practical advice implied in this picture: if you find yourself unable to grasp a particular groove (perhaps a groove in a musical genre with which you are unfamiliar), experiment with moving your body to the pulse, explore variations of movement, observe the ways others familiar with the genre move. Finding the right kinds of movements may begin to unlock, so to speak, the key perceptual structure, which will enable you to begin to experience what you previously perceived as off-time notes, now, as pushes, pulls – a groove.
This somatic understanding of the pulse, concludes Roholt, gives us equilibrium, making sense of everything else that happens in the music. And when a groove is established, precisely and consistently playing with or against the pulse in specific relationships, a new equilibrium is established, a groove that provides the foundation for the song: “For listeners as well as players, the buoyancy of a groove is the result of the felt support that comes from finding equilibrium in repetition, even if it is built upon tense pulls and pushes.”
Finding Pushes, Pulls, and Centers
We can explore some concrete examples of these pushes and pulls by revisiting “the pocket,” a musical concept I introduced in Groovology 201. In that article, I quoted bassist and music writer Mike Emiliani, who describes how musicians deliberately play ahead of, behind, or on top of the beat to create a feeling of push, pull/drag, or centeredness. The image from Emiliani’s article at right, for example, illustrates the instruments playing in the center of the beat, which results in a relaxed (“centered”) feeling in the music.
In contrast, Emiliani explains how musicians can play behind the beat to create a feeling of pull or drag. He uses Earth Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” as a musical example of playing behind the beat. Take a listen:
If you bob your head or otherwise move your body to this song, Emiliani writes, “your movement is somewhat slow, dragged back, almost like it’s winding up to match the snare hit on beat 2 and 4.” Emiliani’s second image at right illustrates how these instruments play behind the beat, creating a feeling of pull or drag, a result of the felt difference between when these instruments are heard in relationship to the beat. Paul Berliner, in his book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, calls this pull/drag a “body-emotional feeling,” a description based on multiple interviews with high-level musicians, among them bassist Rufus Reid, who says playing in front of the beat feels like “walking into the wind.”
Musicians can also play ahead of the beat to create a body-emotional feeling of push or, as Emiliani describes, “moving a song forward so it feels like it’s going beyond the provided tempo, barely holding as it drives forward.” Emiliani gives The Police’s “Hungry for You” as an example of playing ahead of the beat, “pushing the song forward to the point that it feels like it’s going to fall apart at any second.” When listening to this example, for the majority of people, tapping the foot or bobbing the head to the music (rather than just trying to listen for the pushed timing) makes a big difference in whether the push is heard/felt or not.
It’s important to understand that playing ahead of, behind, or in the center of the beat is not necessarily uniform within a single song or between the various instruments. In fact, it frequently isn’t, and this is one of the ways musicians create interest and contrast, by alternating pushes and pulls or playing both at once to create tension and excitement. In his journal article Play It Con Filin!: The Swing and Expression of Salsa, musicologist Christopher Washburne describes an example from a salsa tune by Eddie Palmieri (visually represented in the image above right): “Using the bells as the center of the beat, emically known as the ‘pocket pulse,’ Palmieri places the piano attacks slightly ahead, thus ‘driving the rhythm.’ Simultaneously, the bass acts as an anchor placing the attacks slightly behind the beat ensuring that the tempo does not run away. This balanced pushing and pulling within the beat creates exciting tension and propulsion in the music-swing.”
The majority of people don’t hear and feel all of these nuances at first. But including these examples underscores the variety and nuance in these pushes and pulls in the music. Just knowing that a song or even an individual instrument can be played in a certain way to achieve a body-emotional feeling of push, pull, or centeredness opens up a whole world of possibility.
Feeling Music’s Relationships in the Body
It’s not just playing ahead of, behind, or on top of the beat that creates these body-emotional feelings. For example, in our culture we generally experience higher pitches higher in the body and lower pitches lower, resulting in feelings of airiness and groundedness respectively, which can be experienced somatically as vertical pulls and pushes, lifts and drops, suspensions and releases. In addition to rhythm and pitch, the musical elements of melody, harmony, texture, density, dynamics, and timbre all affect the body. Among the body’s responses are pushes and pulls, lifts and drops, suspensions and releases, contractions and stretches, taps and slides, twists and sways – often several at once and felt in various parts of the body.
So the elements of music don’t act in isolation but interact in the flow of the music to create multiple relationships in the body, greater than the sum of their parts and with the capacity to evoke multi-dimensional body-emotional feelings. So an anxious syncopation or a falling cadence, a lilting suspension or a soaring melody, will have rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, textural, and other elements, all affecting the sound and therefore the feel. This should be a whole-body experience, with the relationships between various parts creating the lilting and energy of the body known in tango as cadencia. So it’s not just the feet; it’s the whole body that searches for the relationships in the music in order to hear and feel them better.
That’s what’s appealing about Carlton’s famous dance from the TV show from the ’90s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: At 0:28 of this video, it’s not just that his feet mark the pulse. It’s the way the swing of his arms push and pull to delay and then catch up to the beat. It’s the way his whole body seems to wind up in preparation for the stress of the pulse in his feet. From 0:36, we see his arms suspended in a drop (or push) while his whole body lifts (or pulls). In other words, there are multiple relationships in Carlton’s body that are reflecting relationships in the music, and this is what makes his dancing “groovy”:
Carlton’s dancing exemplifies what Tiger Roholt has written: “Understanding a groove means to feel the qualitative relationships among the elements of the rhythm in one’s body.” This feel, paradoxically, comes from a combination of control and relaxation.
Balancing Control and Relaxation
If the pulse is the stability against which all the music’s rhythms push and pull, then one’s ability to groove is dependent on their ability to internalize the pulse of the music. Recall Tiger Roholt’s words above, that “the norm is the rhythm’s pulse; the tensions are provided by the timing nuances.” The pulse must be precise and consistent, or the relationships in the music and in the body will be distorted, if they are felt at all.
For example, when a musician deliberately plays ahead of the beat, the pulse must still be felt as the norm in order for their playing to be “ahead,” to maintain the intended relationship. This is what creates the feeling of push. A musician who is playing ahead of the beat because they are rushing the pulse, on the other hand, is distorting the timing and the relationships for the rest of the band. So a musician’s timing must be precise, consistent, and in proper relationship to the other musicians based on the full musical context.
But control will only get us so far. As we saw in Groovology 201, groove implies not only momentum and drive but effortlessness and relaxation. Ethnomusicologist John Miller Chernoff, author of African Rhythm and African Sensibility, has written, “[Groove] also suggests coolness and calm, something effortless and smooth, as in ‘groovin.’ In its physical aspect, it keeps you up with it, ‘in the groove.’” Because of this quality, groove is more often described as something that musicians allow to happen rather than something they create by control. In fact, most of the advice professional musicians give for finding groove tends to be mental, emotional, social, and even spiritual rather than technical in nature. Ed Friedland, writes this in his book Bass Grooves:
[Y]ou can’t just sit there with a metronome and become a groove monster. You also have to open yourself to the energetic force that makes the groove happen… Once you attain basic mechanical competence on the bass, the biggest obstacle to the groove is internal blockage. Groove is like water falling down a mountainside, taking the path of least resistance. Part of your challenge is to remove the boulders that block the flow of the groove.
Victor Wooten, world-renowned bassist and author of The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, beautifully describes both in his book and the video below how a musician’s groove can be improved not through technique or even practice but through a change in mindset. His words (starting at 1:40) hint at how relaxation improves our timing and control:
Victor Wooten’s music lesson in this video illustrates what Ingrid Monson has written in her book, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction: “There is nothing inarticulate or analytically vague about these [musicians’] statements; metaphorical images are in many cases more communicative than ordinary analytical language.”
Also essential to relaxing into the groove is giving up preconceptions about how the groove should work. Often we try to rely on technique to find a groove, and technique can certainly be helpful, but equally important is allowing feel to guide mind and body. As the definition of groove (see Groovology 201) makes clear, a musician can play in a technically correct manner and still not groove. As bassist Harvey Brooks has said: “There are no rules when it comes to the groove – you have to do whatever makes it work. You may have to play a groove you haven’t experienced before, but you still need to make it solid and feel good, and make it sound like it’s easy.”
This returns us to what Victor Wooten has written: “Never lose the groove to find a note.” Finding and maintaining the groove is a high priority in music. And it’s a moving target: Yesterday’s groove can become today’s rut. Every time a musician plays they have to find a new way of connecting to the groove.
Finding Groove in the Dancer’s Body
The points below serve as both a summary of the above points and an application of these musical concepts to our dancing.
1. Internalize the pulse. Just like musicians, dancers too find equilibrium in the music’s pulse. Internalizing this pulse – developing the ability to find it precisely and consistently in one’s movement – is essential in discovering musical relationships in the body. Tiger Roholt’s advice here is excellent: “experiment with moving your body to the pulse, explore variations of movement, observe the ways others familiar with the genre move. Finding the right kinds of movements may begin to unlock, so to speak, the key perceptual structure, which will enable you to begin to experience what you previously perceived as off-time notes, now, as pushes, pulls – a groove.”
2. Internalize the dance basic. In addition to internalizing the pulse, dancers must also internalize the phrased basic and how it fits within the musical structure, as this forms the framework for the entire dance. An analogy can be found in salsa music, as Christopher Washburne explains that vocalists will often “snap their fingers or clap the clave rhythm while singing to insure proper rhythmic phrasing.” Internalizing this central rhythm is how they make sure what they sing relates to the song’s structures. Dancers can do the same, as we will explore with a future article in this series, Finding Groove in Improvisation.
3. Groove the basic. Internalizing the dance basic can easily devolve into monotonous repetition of the same steps. In other words, the groove can become a rut. But while the dance basic is an effective container for the groove, it should not be mistaken for the groove itself. As I wrote in Groovology 101, “the basic of each dance is not a static ideal; it is a central tendency with the ability to adapt to the variations and nuances in articulation and phrasing within and between countless songs in the musical genre(s) of each dance.” The unique timing, texture, and density of the groove, as well as the melody, accents, and other musical elements in the top layer, give the whole body possibilities for musical expression even in the footsteps of a single dance basic.
4. Find pushes and pulls in the body. Learning how to hear/feel when musicians are playing ahead of, behind, or in the center of the beat is a good exercise for finding pushes, pulls, and centeredness in the body. Dancers can change the timing of their steps to match the push or pull of the musicians. They can also deliberately choose to contrast their timing with the music to push or pull against it. As Juliet McMains writes about salsa dancers in the Palladium era in her forthcoming book, Spinning Mambo into Salsa, “dancers integrated themselves into the push and pull of the orchestra, almost like another member of the band, pushing and pulling on the rhythm too.” Another common practice for many high-level dancers is to consistently dance behind the beat to create a laid back rather than rushed feeling and/or to leave themselves plenty of time to hear/feel what’s happening the music so they can respond to it.
5. Find other relationships in the body. There are many helpful exercises that engage the body in finding relationships in the music. Among them are scatting along to different instruments (your voice comes from both body and breath), giving back rubs to others or to your leg with taps and slides to different rhythms and with different qualities, dancing more staccato to a song that feels more staccato and make a game out of finding the legato moments, do a walk or other basic to the music and make a game out of slowing down (musically) and then catching back up to the music. Take Alex Krebs’ advice from my interview with him: “I recommend dancing on your own and then when you get with your partner sort of bring back that spirit of how you would dance in your kitchen alone if you put on music.” In addition, watch dancers, both inside and outside of your style, and notice what exactly they are responding to in the music, how it makes you feel, how you feel it in your own body.
6. Internalize the music’s grammar and story. The relationships between the various elements of music interact in a purposeful way based on the song’s story, how it flows from beginning to end. Knowing the context allows the musical parts and their relationships to be more easily heard and felt. In his journal article Rock versus Classical Music, music philosopher Stephen Davies writes: “Because the response is to the multi-stranded pattern of tensions and relaxations that propel the music forward and bring it to a close, the listener must have internalized aspects of the style’s ‘grammar,’ so that she has expectations that can be confirmed, delayed, or defeated by the music’s course.” Internalizing the style’s grammar can include learning about the music’s structure and actively listening for the story. Regardless of the method, hours of listening are essential.
7. Prioritize groove. As we heard from Ed Friedland, “the biggest obstacle to the groove is internal blockage. Groove is like water falling down a mountainside, taking the path of least resistance. Part of your challenge is to remove the boulders that block the flow of the groove.” The most important decision you can make in your dancing life is to prioritize groove. Once you do, you will begin to notice what helps and what hinders groove in your dancing. Questions to ask: Where is my focus when I dance? Am I relaxed? What makes me anxious or distracted? What makes me relax and focus on the groove? Do I have expectations or judgments of others that are preventing me from grooving with them? Do I have expectations or judgments of myself that are preventing me from finding groove in my own body? These are questions you can ask yourself more generally to see where you are in your dancing life, but they are also questions you can ask yourself with each new dance.
Stay tuned for the next article in this series, Finding Groove in the Partnership. Until then, you may want to check out Why Grooving Solo Is Essential for Partner Dancers for some practice exercises for finding groove in your body.