I have found that many believe that poly-meter and poly-rhythms are interchangeable terms. However, they are not, even if they often work in tandem. Poly-meter is when multiple time signatures are layered on top of each other within a composition. An example could be one drummer playing a 4/4 meter and the other a 9/8 meter. This would create some ‘tension’ in the structure and also allows for swing quality and various forms of groove. I have sometimes referred to poly-meter as poly-tempo.

A dancer’s ability to move to or create poly-meter could be expressed both in picking out different time signatures or by moving to a different time signature, that is not audible. If the dancer’s movements create rhythmic sound, then the dancer as a musician becomes a part.

I have found that using poly-meter as a choreographic tool is an exciting way to keep the audience attention. It can serve to defamiliarize movement, motifs or help to change the general “feel”. A change in time-signature can serve to communicate a change in value or importance of a moment or a movement. It shifts attention. I have found that layering the movement on a slower time-signature than the music creates a feeling of elasticity and of time slowing down. It expands the moment and communicates importance or severity. When placed on let’s say the meeting between two dancers on stage, if done subtly, it reads as a significant meeting, one which can expand on the relationship between the two dancers.

Similarly, if the meeting between two dancers engages a “quickening” this could communicate an increase of power, intensity etc. depending of course on the surrounding dramaturgy. I have also found that using slower time-signatures in a moment could communicate a resistance to that moment or something in it. Returning then to the dominant time signature could then be felt like a “release”. If these changes of time-signature are subtle, they will communicate and affect the reading of the choreography without the audience being conscious of the adjustments and the “manipulation” of time and affect.



Poly-rhythm is when multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. Usually, they would be layered and be played within the same time grouping or metre. However, in more complex Africana rhythms, both poly-rhythms and poly-meter are present.  Meaning that the rhythmical composition could have multiple rhythms layered on top of each other and additionally played with different time signatures. A dancer, dancing to a poly-rhythmic composition can choose to challenge or add resistance to the composition by sometimes moving to another time signature. Done expertly this would be perceived as a form of groove that demands attention. Drummers and dancers who are well versed in these forms will be able to engage in competitive collaboration as they challenge each other and the composition.

A consequence of having a poly-rhythmic approach is that there is an almost infinite possibility for rhythmic play. Virtuosity and skill are determined by the choices we make concerning the silences and sounds, in relation with other rhythms played and the participating audience response. Similarly, our selection of movements with the rhythms, motif, and environment will be evaluated for the dancer. The collaborative play between dancers and music, music and dancers, dancers and the surroundings, layer on top of each other. These layers intertwine in new ways, continually pushing against the ‘code’ negotiated in previous moments.  The task of a performer armed with a poly-rhythmic-technique is the ability to keep a red thread running through all of this, weaving the multiple layers of sensations and sensibilities. This ability is the heritage of the rhythmically virtuoso Africana performer.

As described in the “Hear the Movement, See the Rhythm” section. Rhythmic Representation and Rhythmic Creation, as well as the activities of Second Rattle Mode Collaborative Direction of Sound and Movement, The Percussive Body and Optic Rhythm all, serve as tools that help the dancer navigate, layer, render, interpret and create poly-rhythmic play and display. The possibilities for creating meaning and for creativity are as layered, complex and numerous as the rhythmic possibilities forwarded by the poly-rhythmic concept. This is a precious technology honed for generations. It is so fine-tuned that it has become a central, almost intuitive, element of much of our dance practices, especially those deemed to be “improvisational”. I prefer to call these “conversational” as we often enter into a conversation with the rhythm or beat when freestyling if it is to drums, DJ or a Hip Hop cypher setting. The rhetoric skill and virtuosity of the “arguments” offered up by the dancers are usually instantly responded to, validated or negated by the audiences call and response.

When did the audience learn this mode? How do they know what to respond too?  I say that it has been artistic labour so durational that it has entered into the cultural core. It is now passed down together with other norms and values. I believe that this should cause us to respect it more, because of its duration and for the share size area of influence of this practice. We also need to develop a language through which to engage and analyse this. I have found that pre-colonial languages, often do have ways to communicate rhythmical concepts which are hard to translate to Europeanist languages. This is further complicated by the fact that these concepts or terminologies in the African languages tend to be poly-semic, meaning that they carry multiple meanings. For example, Sabar is a terminology used in Senegambia which simultaneously names and describes the dance, the rhythm structure and the cultural setting of the performance. To the initiate this, one word would carry enough meaning to warrant at least one full page of an English translation to capture the information conveyed. These are contemporary challenges I believe we must engage.

Eurhythmia, polyrhythmia, isorhythmia, and arrhythmia are concepts I strongly recommend that anyone interested in rhythm and affect look up and investigate. Armed with these concepts, I believe that it would be easier to understand just how complex and layered the artistic potential of poly-rhythmic approaches genuinely are.