African dance has traditionally played an essential role in the culture of the tribes. Much more than entertainment, dances communicate emotions, celebrate rites of passage, and help strengthen the bonds between members of the tribe as a whole.
African dance is polycentric, which sets it apart from most other dance traditions in the world. As explained by the National Museum of African Art, this means that the dancer’s body is segmented into separate areas of movement, with each area being able to move to different rhythms within the music. Known as “isolations” in choreographic terms, these moves are quite complex and difficult to master.
Most African villages had a “dance master” who taught the members of the tribe from a very young age how to perform the various dances. It was very important that these dances be performed exactly as taught, with no room for improvisation or ornamentation until complete mastery of the form was achieved. While almost all of the dances are polycentric in some way, different areas of Africa have very different dances. The Masai are known for leaping high in the air, for example, while the Kalabari emphasize hip motions. In all cases, the movements are very precise, and the same dances you see today have most likely been danced the same way for centuries.
In African dance, the drum is one way to set the mood and brings everyone together as a community. However, many other instruments are used as well, such as gourds strung with beads. Clapping, stamping feet, and most of all singing also create rhythmic music for African dance. As dancers move in an expression of their inner feelings, their movements are generally in rhythm to the music. It is the sound of the music and the rhythms that are played that provide the heartbeat of the dance. The music and dance are considered inseparable, two parts of the same activity. Groups such as the Alokli West African Dance Ensemble, who perform historical, social, and ritualistic dance forms from all along the Ivory Coast, illustrate the wide variety of dance forms .