In a drum dance, voice and instrument blend and harmonize to create a mood, to tell a story, or entertain. Beat patterns are played on a large drum, coupled with chants or narrative songs. In the old days, most drum dances happened in snow houses. Some large snow houses or dance iglus (qaqqiq) were sometimes constructed for this purpose.
The drum dance tradition extends across the Canadian Arctic, with regional variations in drums, songs, movements, and whether the drummer sings or someone else sings. Playing a large drum requires strength and stamina. In the eastern arctic style drum dance, the drum is usually held in the left hand, and rotated as the drummer strikes the wooden rim on both sides of the handle with a beater. The drumhead resonates, amplifying the sound. The beat establishes a rhythm, and the vocal accompaniment provides counterpoint and carries from one percussive note to the next.
Drum dances are a combination of body movement, drum beating, and vocal song (pisiit). The drummer beats the drum and utters exclamations at important points in the song. The vocal songs are usually sung by someone else (frequently a woman or several women) while the drummer drums. The songs usually tell a story or describe an event. The songs were always sung as originally memorized, and functioned a bit like history books passing on events and stories of the past to new generations.
However, songs could be created on a whim or for various specific purposes. A drum dance song might be used to settle a dispute, offer a challenge, or even ridicule. Once a drummer was finished with a song and wanted to pass the drum along, he would set it on the floor in front of the next dancer.
Before there were buildings, drum dances were usually held in a confined space, such as a dance iglu or snow house topped with a canvas roof. There was little floor space, so the dances did not involve much in the way of “footwork”. Usually there is a sort of sideways shuffle-step, and the drummer circles around, so that he eventually faces all of the audience. Upper body, head, and arm movement are all coordinated with the beat of the drum and with the song. Exclamations by the dancer also add to the excitement of the song; a good dancer knows just when to yell out.
Because of the size of the drum and the strength required to play it, drum dancing is generally a male activity, but in recent years some women have acquired this skill.
In the eastern Arctic drum dancing a large drum (qilauti), sometimes almost 90 cm in diameter, is used. The rim is a wooden hoop with a groove on the outside, and a handle is lashed into the rim. A cover of dehaired caribou skin is dampened and stretched across the circle, and then lashed into place with braided sinew cords that ride in the groove. A wooden beater (katuuti) is used to play the drum. The striking end of the beater may be wrapped with sealskin.
For tuning, the cover is dampened and a tapered tuner is rolled into the edges and used to lever the skin taut across the head of the drum. The cords hold the skin in place, but, as the skin dries and shrinks, the precise tone is lost and tuning must be done again. Today, most drum covers are fabric or a rubberized fabric. These do not require wetting for tuning, and do not shrink when the drummer dances under hot stage lights.