Musicality Book Club, Week 1: Grounded Spirituality Through Upper and Lower Body

bookWelcome to the official start of our Musicality Book Club using Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World! I know a couple of people are still waiting for their book, but they plan to follow along until it arrives. I hope everyone else is ready to go with their copy or at least excited about exploring the concepts I write about here (I will always quote the appropriate section so we’re on the same page). If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, you can order on Amazon here.

We started the introduction last week as a kind of teaser (click here to get caught up), and now to wrap up the introduction here is the quote for this week from Bridge of Waves and some thoughts I have been wanting to write about for a while relating to grounded and spiritual energy in the dance. Enjoy!

Because music is both embodied and free-flowing energy, it has the capacity to connect thing to thing, body to body, mind to mind, heart to heart, and spirit to spirit. Neither heaven nor earth, it is the middle way, a wave bridge between nameable and nameless, between relative and absolute, thinking and feeling, the grammar of language and the cadences of the sea…

I think a wave is what energy is made of and a bridge is where you stomp your feet. The music bridge is made of energy but it lives in the substance of my body and feels as substantial as anything in life ever feels. In Bridge of Waves I’d like you to appreciate energetic and corporeal terms at once, “with your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground,” as the saying goes.

I loved reading this section because it evokes some other parallels and relationships between the grounded and the spiritual in both body and music, especially when it comes to the upper and lower body.

I first started exploring the concept of the rooted lower body and the free-flowing upper body during my studies of grounded energy in Latin dance (salsa, merengue, bachata) and its Afro-Cuban roots. More than any other partner dance I feel the groundedness in the lower body through the Latin dances because of the bending and straightening of the knees and the dropping of the center and the hips toward the floor. One salsa instructor would tell students to move as though they were pushing their way through water, creating this positive heaviness and power. Another prompt was moving as though wearing a heavy skirt, which pulls your center down to the earth and creates a feeling of weightedness. Obviously these specific images don’t resonate as clearly with all dances, but they emphasize using gravity to feel rooted to the earth, a concept which I have heard expressed in all dances, from ballet and modern to tango and swing.

In addition to – or perhaps in conjunction with – groundedness, the lower body is also associated with rhythm. Jazz choreographer, performer, and professor Billy Siegenfeld explored some of these concepts in the context of jazz and its African roots in the article, Standing Down Straight: Jump Rhythm Technique’s Rhythm-Driven, Community-Directed Approach to Dance Education:

It [the Jump Rhythm technique] teaches students to direct their body weight downward since it is the ground not the air that the human body instinctively moves toward when it makes rhythmic accents. The body pulses down since it is the solidity of the earth not the porousness of the air that provides the resistant surface against which the body pushes to create the ballistic motions of rhythm-making.

Although I hesitate to make any formal rules, we can definitely identify trends and tendencies. Syncopated rhythms generally take place through the feet, while the more lyrical aspects of the music tend to be expressed through the upper body and even into the core a bit, although the core is limited quite significantly by its function as the body’s stabilizer in connecting the upper and lower halves. And, as a side note, we also find that the relationship between the movement of the upper and lower bodies is inverse: the more the upper body is active, the less the lower body is free to move so that it can contribute to the body’s stabilization, and vice versa.

Returning to the upper body, Lynne Anne Blom and L. Tarin Chaplin write eloquently of its associations in The Intimate Act of Choreography: “High level is about elevation, flying, and defying gravity. It is also about effortlessness; the dancer is poised above the earth barely touching it, seeming not to need or use the ground. It is epitomized by the illusion that ballet creates, though every good dancer knows, the secret of that illusion is using the ground.” Although the authors are writing about non-partner dance here, their words still resonate with how the free movement of the upper body feels to us. It is very often associated with the ethereal and the transcendental (I once read that in African dance the shimmying of the shoulders is considered very spiritual). But as Blom and Chaplin mention, it is groundedness that makes this freedom and lightness possible.

The bodily experience, of course, echoes what we hear in the music. The lower notes are more obviously felt in the body while the lower notes are much lighter and feel less strongly embodied (i.e., more spiritual). Deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, for example, discovered music through senses other than hearing, primarily through her kinesthetic (bodily) sense. As her husband wrote about her (as quoted in Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein’ book Sparks of Genius: “The low sounds she feels mainly in her legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on her face, neck, and chest.” This corresponds to how we most often express the lower and the high, the rhythmic and the lyrical.

So we find that both music itself and the body’s experience of music – if they can even be separated – reveal an amazing connection between groundedness and spirituality. This connection also points to how inextricable our bodies and our spirits are from one another. They seem to rely on each other for their existence and their expression. I love mediating on this concept. That’s why I chose the picture above; the grounding of trees in the earth through their roots and the heavenward reach they signify through their branches serve as a perfect metaphor. Has anyone else pondered or experience this phenomenon? Leave a comment so we can discuss!

How fitting that Chapter 1 is about Music as Body. I can’t wait to explore this chapter with everyone next Tuesday, March 8. See you then!

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Here’s the next post in this series:
Musicality Book Club, Week 2: Music in the Body

1 comment on Musicality Book Club, Week 1: Grounded Spirituality Through Upper and Lower Body

  1. cypresssalsero1
    March 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm (6 years ago)

    Being grounded, and your awareness of it with respect to the motion of your body is so very important in dancing. I have experienced exercises that were similar between dance and martial arts training. I heard a gymnast remark that he regularly trains for balance by very slowly lowering and raising his center of gravity, first on two legs and then balancing on each leg. Finally, he performs the exercises blindfolded.

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