BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (AFP) - The sound of drums rips through the air in a dusty alley scorched by the afternoon sun in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.
Passersby stop in their tracks, entranced by the hypnotic rhythm pounded out by the musicians of the national dance company.
In a country bloodily divided by ethnic and religious strife, the National Central African Ballet is a rare unifying factor - a melting pot, professing no favouritism or allegiance to any group or sect.
For at least two days a week, the conflicts that ravage most of the country seem far away in downtown Bangui, where 30 or so professional artists come together.
"It's for all Central Africans, whether they're Christian, or Muslim, or even if they're foreign. We can train them. That's how we like it," says Kevin Bemon, the dance company's 37-year-old technical director, as he puts on his costume.
The remarks may seem surprising given the sectarian strife that has torn the country apart for years.
Following Bemon's cue, the dancers also shed their everyday clothes and don instead crowns of feathers, pearls or shells, animal skins, skirts and multicoloured traditional costumes.
Then they leap into action. Digging into forms of music and movement beyond recorded history, they sway and bend to the melodies of the horns and the electrifying beat of the drums, their half-naked bodies quickly bathed in sweat.
Faces, previously dour and serious, light up in smiles. The trials of everyday life are forgotten for a while - and so are the armed militias patrolling a few kilometres from the capital.
Like the costumes, the dances and the music are a mixture of traditional cultures from the 16 different prefectures of the strife-torn country, two-thirds of which are under the sway of some 18 armed groups.
For all its aspirations of national unity, the Central African Ballet has no dancers from the far north, the area from which the Muslim Seleka rebels originated who overthrew Christian leader Francois Bozize in 2013, sparking a cycle of intercommunal violence.
But even if almost all of its current members come from Bangui, the troupe is adamant that neither ethnicity nor religion play a role.
"I don't have dancers from the Vakaga but I would like to have some," says company director Dieudonne Koumba, 59, referring to a region in the northeast of the country, near the borders with Chad and Sudan.
He insists that despite this lack, the troupe's composition is "solidly representative" of the country as a whole.
Originally set up under former president Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the national ballet has regularly travelled abroad since it was founded in 1969.
"It's a symbol of the unity of the country. Here there are no differences, no divisions. It's like football," says Maurice Souanenbgi, who has played as a musician in the company for 32 years.
A ballet adviser and very much the company's living memory, 77-year-old Souanenbgi says the troupe has performed in Ivory Coast, for King Mohammed VI in Morocco, for Moamer Khadafi in Libya, in Algeria, in France, and even in China.
The company undertakes one to two trips per year, at the invitation of various festivals. Its most recent was to Douala in Cameroon, where it performed at the Ti-i festival in December.
"The aim was to promote social cohesion by celebrating with Central African refugees in Douala," says Koumba.
In addition to music and dance, Koumba also has ambitions to put on theatre performances. But his hands are tied by lack of funds.
"We have financing allocated in the state budget. Unfortunately, we haven't been paid yet," Koumba says.
He says he has recently sent an application for funding to the country's arts, tourism and culture ministry. True to the company's optimistic mission, he hopes that it will be successful.