Caricature can be a teaching tool that unravels mysteries. In Zaire, at Africa's center, there's often a fool character who acts as master of ceremonies for festivals. Traditionally the role is reserved for a male, who not only has to direct the proceedings but is expected to pester onlookers to join in. Once they've done so, he mimics their performance. In "Magic Dances of Zaire," the weekend's star attraction at Dance Place's African festival, the fool, or tundu, cleverly exaggerated the features of what were undoubtedly the most virtuosic and varied contractions, shakes, bumps and belly rolls ever done in Washington. Watching him, one could find clues to the basic elements of these complex movements and perhaps begin to understand how they are executed. Some of the mystery is dispelled, but not the wonder of seeing the dancing, hearing the music and absorbing the rhythm of people who haven't lost their freshness as they have gained experience.

The program began with a processional of the Zairian musicians, singing and playing gourds and drums as they progressed slowly, moving repeatedly three steps forward and two steps back. The gourds are astonishingly versatile, serving as wind instruments into which air is blown or as sound boxes for plucked or struck strings. They can also be substitute drums. Like much African music, that of Zaire is rhythmically intricate, but tone and volume are also important. Gourds can sound as lush as horns, and on occasion the drumming can be so soft that it seems to come from far away.

Everyone onstage moves, and the dancing is seen against this busy tapestry. The pyrotechnicians of the torso were a trio, two women (Azaba Ngoto and Kabwata Amwasa) and a man (Mfur Mundende), whose renditions of birth dances (from the Mbuun people) seemed scarily real. All three dancers can contract in various parts of the trunk, but generally Amwasa keeps the action high while his companions like to drive it down from the diaphragm and back it into the hips. Mobile knee bends seem to be important for a high energy level. The connotations of the contractions can vary, and in a passage in which Mundende stood behind Amwasa and synchronized his movement with hers, the birth seemed months away.

Snake dances of the Pende people require speed and agility but have more shaking than slinking. The performers (Gilonda Mufulu and Gima Tangiza) had painted their limbs in bands to resemble snakeskin, and wore bits of real snakeskin and straw ruffles. In a Mungonge rite, the dancers moved like puppets, with exaggerated flexibility in the joints. When actual puppets began to move, they seemed to be imitating the dancers. Percussive footwork appears in several of Zaire's dances but is not always predominant.

There are grotesque dances and bawdy dances. One soloist, Kabaye Nianga, was always scurrying bent over and seemed like a messenger from the gods. Masks, face and body makeup, and costumes are sometimes important.

With 350 cultural groups, and several that were apparently quite isolated, Zaire has a rich and diverse store of dance and music to display to the world. It's difficult to believe that the cast of "Magic Dances" wasn't school-drilled but simply grew up participating in festivals and ceremonies. But then, with emcees like this program's Gingungu Mulombe to goad you on and satirize your manner, formal training would be superfluous. Mulombe had a good part of the Dance Place audience onstage as the program drew to a close.