Finding Your Personal Groove

In my recent article, Groovology 201: Groove as the Life Force of Music and Dance, I wrote that “Just as playing a groove – a repeating set of rhythms – doesn’t guarantee that the music will groove, executing a particular set of steps does not guarantee that a dance will emerge.” It is groove – the life force – that makes our dancing feel alive. But before we can talk about finding a shared groove, it’s important to talk about finding groove on our own. As we will discover, shared groove is a negotiation between two dancers, and this negotiation assumes that each partner has their own personal groove to bring to the relationship.

I have written about how musicality is a somatic endeavor, and as the essence of musicality groove is no different. The word “soma” literally means “the body experienced from within.” Instead of strictly copying a movement outcome, we make the same discovery in our own way, a way that resonates with the uniqueness of our body and mind. This resonance isn’t just some feel-good message; it is a physical reality. And it dovetails perfectly with the definition of groove we explored in Groovology 201.

Andy Clark, in his book Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, describes a somatic approach to movement in terms of the body’s “intrinsic dynamics,” and describes research on infants developing the ability to reach as an example:

One infant, Gabriel, was very active by nature, generating fast flapping motions with his arms. For him, the task was to convert the flapping motions into directed reaching. To do so, he needed to learn to contract muscles once the arm was in the vicinity of a target so as to dampen the flapping and allow proper contact.

Hannah, in contrast, was motorically quiescent. Such movements as she did produce exhibited low hand speeds and low torque. Her problem was not to control flapping, but to generate enough lift to overcome gravity…

Other infants present other mixtures of intrinsic dynamics, but in all cases the basic problem is one of learning to control some intrinsic dynamics (whose nature, as we have seen, can vary quite considerably) so as to achieve a goal. To do so, the central nervous system must assemble a solution that takes into account a wide variety of factors, including energy, temperament, and muscle tone.

We experience and respond to the world through our unique physical, mental, and emotional dispositions, and each individual experiences and expresses the groove through that unique disposition. Andy Clark lists energy, temperament, and muscle tone as three of many facets that make up the body we bring to our dance experience. Jason Sager, Lindy hop teacher and certified Rolfer, has an excellent six-part series about another one of these factors: our relationship with gravity, what Sager calls up/down orientation. He writes:

Every one of us falls naturally somewhere on a sliding scale of orienting more to the moving up or moving down. Some of this is natural orientation, some influenced by culture, some influenced by training. You can particularly see it in yourself and others in which direction we resource in a moment of stress. When suddenly forced to avoid someone on the street, do you tend more to duck (down) or jump (up). We all have some ability to access both but in almost all cases, we have a preferred orientation that we use more than the other.

Sager offers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, in their performance of The Babbitt and the Bromide from the film Ziegfield Follies, as an example. Watch the following video, keeping in mind these words from Sager: “Dancing side by side, you can start to see how they use the ground differently or rise differently. They even tend to shake hands in different ways (Fred reaching over top, Gene reaching from closer to the waist).”

Sager compares Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire’s up/down orientation – one aspect of their intrinsic dynamics – as follows:

Fred tends to float through the top of his leaps where Gene may not float as much but seems to land more solidly. Towards the end when they perform the ballroom and lindy-ish sections you can see each out of his element contrasted to the other in his. Gene doesn’t float through a waltz the way Fred can and Fred does’t achieve the athletic look that Gene does in the next section. Gene’s legs hold him up and drive him around the floor where Fred’s almost seem to hang from his body at times…

Fred and Gene are both incredible dancers because they can use both up and down in their dancing, but at the same time, their preferences to use one more than the other helps to make them unique, intriguing, and iconic.

In addition to our relationship with gravity (the up/down orientation that Sager describes), and our energy, temperament, and muscle tone as Andy Clark describes, we each have a uniquely personal relationship with breath, with timing and rhythm, with our own shape and our place in space, and with touch and other forms of connection with those around us. These and countless other intrinsic dynamics together make up the personality of our unique groove. Ethnomusicologist Vijay Iyer has described something similar about musicians:

In groove-based contexts, even as the tempo remains constant, fine-scale rhythmic delivery becomes just as important a parameter as, say, tone, pitch, or duration. All these musical quantities combine dynamically and holistically to form what some would call a musician’s “feel.” Individual players have their own feel, that is, their own ways of relating to an isochronous pulse… An individual musician has a particular range of preferred ratios and particular ways of manipulating them, which together form crucial dimensions of that individual’s sound, rhythmic feel, and musical personality.

Of course our culture and training have a major impact on our relationships with gravity, breath, time, space, shape, energy, touch, etc. But even within the same culture and with similar training and technical influences, each one of us manifests them differently based on our physical, mental, and emotional intrinsic dynamics. This isn’t to say that expanding our range and versatility isn’t important, but to understand that we each have a “central tendency,” as Lynne Anne Blom and L. Tarin Chaplin describe in their book, The Intimate Act of Choreography:

A person’s movement is always uniquely expressive of the whole person. It is the way you move – a result of how you feel, perceive, and respond to your world, to others, and to yourself – and therefore it determines the way you will create in movement. Your personal movement style as a dancer is influenced by, and is as basic as, body structure (shape, size), type of dance training, personality, and individual space/time/energy preferences. A person’s style is delimiting, but need not be restrictive (although it can be, as in the well-known rut). It is, according to Valerie Hunt, a ‘central tendency from which you deviate in both directions.’

Knowing our “central tendency” allows us both to know ourselves and to “deviate in both directions,” to own our dancing and to shape our dancing in relationship with another to find a shared groove. Expanding our range and developing other qualities allows us to understand and connect with others through commonalities and differences. But it’s equally essential to take responsibility for our part in the groove, to have the ability to groove on our own instead of relying on the other person to establish and maintain it. Leaders and followers have the same dangers within their unique roles: Leaders can fall into the habit of focusing on leading the follower’s movement at the expense of dancing their own, while followers can focus on “obeying” the leader without grooving their movement. Ed Friedland, in his book Bass Grooves, offers excellent advice for musicians that can easily be applied to dancers:

Playing without drums is a great way to strengthen your groove. When you take the drums away, you lose that statement of the beat, and it becomes your responsibility. It’s also important for bass players to learn to play with just one other musician and take responsibility for the groove. That exposes if you have a good groove or not, and if you have any anxiety about the spaces in the music.

Friedland’s advice is excellent because it hints at the importance of knowing how to find and own the groove, both on your own and in relationship to others. This isn’t just about timing, but about feel, about finding your movement within the music, not on a technical level but on a personal level. It’s what Argentine tango teacher Homer Ladas calls “finding your answer.”

So explore your intrinsic dynamics. Get to know your personal relationship with gravity and with breath, with timing and with rhythm, with shape and with space, with energy and tone, touch and connection. Get to know how music lives in your body through these qualities, and the countless ways it flows through the partnerships you form with others. After all, as its definition makes clear, groove is not about conforming to an outside standard of correctness; it’s about feeling music in our bodies and in our connections with each other. It’s the way music transcends notes, the way dance transcends steps, and the way both come to life.

For some practice exercises to help you explore your personal groove, read Why Grooving Solo Is Essential for Partner Dancers.

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