In partner dancing we commit to gathering our senses around the music and moving together. This is the beauty of our art. But with the goal of a shared dance, the ability to groove solo is often overlooked in favor of partnering skills and movement technique. Of course these are essential, but to find a shared groove each person must also bring their own groove to the partnership.
Unfortunately, in partner dancing it’s common to hear that “the leader is the frame; the follower is the picture” and that followers shouldn’t think but should “just follow.” Language like this encourages leaders to lead without actually dancing and followers to passively follow without owning their movement and musicality. In both cases dancers don’t develop the ability to groove on their own. This has several effects when we try to groove with a partner:
- Our basic steps and moves feel less than amazing and are danced the same way throughout each song and from one song to the next. As a result we feel bored with the limited number of moves we lead or follow.
- We rely on our partner to establish timing or musicality. We give very little beyond what is required to execute the movements. We hear things in the music but don’t know how to respond with our bodies.
- We feel the groove in our basic steps but lose it when we improvise or do more complex movements or musicality.
- We don’t know what to do on our own when we’re not leading or following a specific movement. We lose the groove when space opens up in the partnership.
Learning how to groove solo is one of the best things we can do for our partner dancing. It improves our body awareness, musicality, improvisation, creativity, expression, confidence, and enjoyment, all of which contribute to developing a shared groove with our partners on the dance floor. So how do we practice grooving by ourselves? Below is a starting exercise to explore the fundamentals of finding groove followed by a series of increasingly more challenging exercises to find groove through improvisation.
Finding the Groove: The Fundamentals
If you can’t groove a basic step to the overall feel of the music, you won’t be able to groove more complex movements to finer musical nuances. It’s important to start small and feel comfortable with a simple groove. I call this a simple or basic groove, but really it’s better to think of it as foundational or essential. It’s the feeling from which the rest of the dance should develop. As movement and musicality build in complexity, the goal is to keep the same physical feeling of groove.
Watch Carlton’s famous groovy dance for an example. The basic groove he sets up from 0:28 to 0:32 gets him into the feel of the song and from there he improvises to the music, returning to the same basic groove from 0:38 to 0:40. Note that his “basic” is just as groovy as his more varied and complex steps.
The following exercise is designed to introduce you to finding the groove. It may seem simple, but it’s helpful to see where you’re at with solo grooving to simple repeating footwork with a simple repeating rhythm before adding variety and complexity.
The Setup: Select a song that has a strong groove, a repeating set of rhythms that creates a strong and consistent feel throughout the song. It doesn’t have to be in the genre that you dance to; in fact, it’s helpful if it isn’t so you don’t feel locked into a particular way of moving. You may want to test the footwork (described in Step 1 below) with the song to make sure it’s a good fit.
- “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
- “Get Down On It” by Kool & The Gang
- “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson
- “Crossroads” by John Mayer
1. Find the Beat: You will start with a simple footwork pattern: right together, left together. (Carlton does a groovy version of this in the video above; you can also watch a simple version done by Will Smith at minute 1:10 of this video.) Two of these cycles will fit an eight-count phrase of music. The only technical requirement of this exercise is to move precisely and consistently to the beat with this basic footwork. Because the pulse is the reference point for everything that happens in the music, our ability to groove and our ability to improvise are dependent on our ability to internalize the pulse of the music.
2. Find the Groove: As you move the basic movement pattern to the beat, find the groove, the feel of the rhythm, in your body. Finding the groove will generate a physical feeling of buoyancy, of being “in the pocket”, of being pulled into a physical groove like a car being pulled into tire tracks in the snow (see Finding Groove in the Body for a more detailed description). What exactly is happening with your movement? Other parts of your body will be participating beyond what is strictly required to execute the basic step pattern, but there are no specific requirements. Groove is immediate and physical, but it is a feel rather than a technique. Ultimately, you’re looking for the movement to feel awesome with the music, so awesome you feel like you could keep doing it forever. This is groove.
3. Check for Obstacles and Refocus on the Feel: Check your mind and body for tension, force, self-consciousness, fear, and overthinking, which result from focusing on appearance, correctness, or technique rather than the feel. If any of these come up for you, simply notice without judgment. These obstacles are part of what you want to work on with this exercise. Practice noticing these obstacles, letting them drop away, and returning your focus to the feel. Remember that groove implies relaxation and effortlessness; it is something we allow to happen rather than something we create by control.
Next Steps: Repeat the steps above, doing the same footwork to a variety of different songs. Notice how the groove feels different from one song to the next. Once you feel comfortable with grooving the right together, left together footwork, repeat the steps above with any and every basic movement pattern or rhythmic pattern from your dance, using music that you would dance to socially.
Improvisation Exercises: “Moving the Groove”
A common challenge is staying connected to the groove as movement and music complexity increases. Unless we train ourselves to focus on the feel as we venture beyond the basics of our dance, our improvisations will be disconnected from the music in our body. World-renowned bassist Victor Wooten has written, “Never lose the groove to find a note.” As dancers, our mantra should be, Never lose the groove to find a step.
The following exercises gradually take us away from the basic, with the focus on keeping that feeling of groove. Remember the steps above – finding the pulse, finding the groove, checking for obstacles and refocusing on the feel – as you work through them. They don’t have to be done in order, but they progress from less to more difficult, from more basic to more improvisational. Note: You will want to move to the music you dance to socially so you can develop groove in your dance language (salsa, west coast swing, tango, etc.).
50 Shades of Groove: Start with the basic groove and, every few phrases, give it a different quality: bigger and then smaller, higher and lower, more and less energetic, heavier and lighter, etc. See how many different variables you can play with. Exaggerate the differences: Start from a 1 and gradually dial it up to 10, then gradually return to 1. This will train your sensitivity to different dynamics, which will help you vary your movement according to the music and develop your ability to feel and adjust to the dynamics of your partner.
Call and Response (Partner Groove): This is the partnered version of 50 Shades of Groove. Face a partner and alternate who changes the variable in the groove pattern. The partner who follows will copy the movement until they feel both in sync with the partner who initiated and groovy in the movement. Once this happens, the follower becomes the leader and changes the groove. At first you will likely change every few musical phrases. As you get more comfortable, you can change more quickly and even start mirroring some simple improvisations (see In and Out of Groove below).
Groove Your Voice: Being able to articulate rhythm and melody with your voice with increasing precision and feeling opens up possibilities for articulating them with other parts of your body. For this exercise, hum the melody and/or scat the rhythm while you groove the basic step. Allow the groove in your voice to influence the groove in your body. If they feel inconsistent with each other, find out what it takes for your body to find a way of moving that feels better with the groove of your voice. This exercise also trains your ability to keep the pulse and the basic while tracking other lines in the music.
Groovy Isolations: Instead of doing a footwork pattern, keep your feet in place shoulder-width apart. You can find the pulse by shifting weight from one foot to another or by pulsing the knees while centered over both feet to get started. The primary goal here is to groove with the hips, shoulders, rib cage, any body part you want. You may find it helpful to Groove Your Voice (see exercise above) to find different lines in the music to move to.
In and Out of Groove: Groove to the basic step pattern for one phrase, then improvise for one phrase. Repeat for the entire song, alternating phrases between the basic and improvisation. For the improvised phrases, you can do Groovy Isolations (see exercise above), completely different footwork, or a combination of the two. You may find it helpful to Groove Your Voice (see exercise above) to find different lines in the music to improvise to. Focus on making the transitions as seamless as possible, never dropping the groove.
Copy Cat Groove: Choose a dancer on YouTube that you admire, select a video performance of theirs that you like, and try out some of their groovy movements to the same music. Start with very simple movements, and try them as many times as it takes to make them feel awesome in your body. It may help to hum or scat the part of the music they’re dancing to and work with the movement until it feels good with your voice. Your goal, as always, is to search for the feel of what they’re doing, not to force your body into an exact replica. It can and should look different on your body. For more on how to find groove in copying other’s movements, read my article What Learning Choreography Taught Me About Improvisation and Individuality.
Groove Choreography: Choose a two-phrase of music that you absolutely love and groove as you listen to it over and over, improvising different movements each time. Keep and develop the movements that feel good to the music until you have a choreography for the entire two-phrase section. Perform your choreography several times, each time making it feel more groovy. This one may take a while, but that’s okay! Follow your curiosity and enjoyment with this section of music and let it lead you into movement that makes you feel good.
Freestyle Groove Challenge: Improvise for an entire song, with the goal of focusing on the feeling of groove in your body the entire time. Start with smaller movements and very gradually reach for more challenging movements and musical details. You will inevitably lose the groove at some point. When this happens, just notice without judgment and return your focus to the feel through simple movements until groovy inspiration returns. Noticing when you lose the groove and finding your way back to it is the main purpose of this exercise. The more you practice, the more you will develop skill and sensitivity with your groove.
A few things to remember with these exercises: You don’t have to like everything you do, so don’t get discouraged or frustrated. The whole point is to focus on the feel of what you’re doing, to increase your sensitivity to the dynamic state of groove in your body. A secondary purpose is to find out what you like and what you don’t like, and this only happens through trial and error. You may fall in love with some movements and try to re-create them on the dance floor, while other movements you may never do again. Allow the specifics of your movements to slip through your fingers, but feel free to repeat something if you like it and find ways of putting it into your dance.
Above all, be gentle with yourself and remember why you’re practicing. In Groovology 201, I described how musicians use groove to evoke “the personal, social, artistic, and even spiritual qualities of music: the way people feel the music in their bodies, the way musicians play in unison, the way music transcends notes and comes to life, and the way music brings people into modified states of being.” As dancers we want to explore these same qualities. Keep your focus on how you want to feel when you’re dancing. This is what groove is all about.