The most amazing thing about "Dance, Dance, Dance," the 10-part series which makes its debut at 6 this morning on Channel 4, is that it exists at all.
As recently as five years ago, it would have seemed the unlikeliest of surmises that a commercial network would ever devote 10 half-hours of air time to what is essentially an illustrated talk show about the art of dance. Granted that this is part of a continuing public service show under the general heading of "Knowledge," and that it airs at the crack of dawn, it's still an unexpected and welcome novelty.
The exposure, moreover, will be considerable. Because it is network-produced, the series, which runs locally Monday to Friday through Sept. 22, also will be shown on NBC-owned stations in four other major markets - New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Chicago.
The series is the brainchild of Maida Withers, who serves as host for all 10 programs, and put together the series with the help of director Sandra Butler and her NBC crew. Withers, one of the prime-movers of dance in Washington, is a member of the George Washington University dance faculty, and a dancer, choreographer and founder of the Dance Construction company.She has a bright, engaging presence on screen, and is decidedly one of the chief assets of the series.
On the down side, there are the many and severe limitations of shoestring production. The basic format is that of a panel discussion show, with the "moderator" (Withers) and several guests seated in an open quadrangle in a stark-looking studio. Besides the talk, there are also demonstrations of dance styles, technique and choreography, both through live studio performance and films. The dancing, though, receives only the barest enhancement - a minimal use of cameras and lights, and a generally raw sort of production.
Within these limitations, the series manages to cover, however sketchily, a vast amount of territory. Four of the programs deal with topics related to dance in education - dance history, the forms of dance, preparing for a career, and the use of dance as an educational tool.
Three are devoted to particular areas of dance activity - the professional dancer, dance for senior citizens and disco dance. The remaining three concern ancillary fields - dance criticism, the business side of dance and the growing domain of dance therapy.
In addition to Withers, the series' 24 panelists include such key figures on the Washington dance scene as Larry Warren of the University of Maryland and Naima Prevots of American University. Rhoda Grauer (head of the dance program at the National Endowment for the Arts) and Gene Wenner (arts specialist from the U.S. Office of Education) put in appearance, and the list includes teachers, students, performers, managers, therapist and critics. Performing artists include the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, the GWU Dancers, the Maryland Dance Theater, the Dance Exchange, and disco instructors Vic Daumit and Mavie de la Pena.
None of five sampled shows was without its drawbacks, but each had its rewards as well. The segment on the business of dance - the economics of company management, questions of subsidy and patronage, the tensions between business practice and artistic needs - is particularly strong, partly because the subject lends itself to verbal presentation, and partly because the discussions are especially articulate.It's also fascinating to encounter such things as a performance of a bit of modern dance followed by three professional dance critics reacting in three completely divergent ways to what they - and we - have seen.
Withers and NBC are certainly to be applauded for allowing dance to be examined in as serious, intelligent and far-reaching a manner as this series makes possible. It scarcely seems probable that the multitudes - or such of them as are conscious at 6 in the morning - will be swept off their feet by these generally low-key, unglamorous proceedings. But it's nice to know that a network has awakened to the huge national surge of enthusiasm for dance, and that it can make room for programs assuming an adult level of interest and attention once in a while.
It's easy, moreover, to think of worse ways of starting a day.