Talk about democracy in action! The sight of more than 800 performer, clad not just in tutus and tights but in everything from mantillas and kilts to dirndls, loin cloths and kimonos, dancing across the steps at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial Saturday afternoon -- it was a pectacle that gave the concept an animation and significance the framers of the Declaration of Independence might never have dreamed of. But it was also one of which they would have heartily approved.

The occasion was the kickoff event for the Fourth Annual City Dance festival, which will culminate in three programs at the Warner Theatre later this week, featuring 10 area dance companies.

In the past the festvial has been confined to a limited number of troupes seletced by audition for indoor stage performances. This year, however, thanks to the unbuttoned imagination of City Dance artistic adviser Liz Lerman, the event also broke out into the fresh air and on a monumetal scale, with Saturday's May Dance Celebration involving some 45 dance companies of every description, performing singly and together, spilling forth from the steps down the sides of the Reflecting Pool and onto the surrounding Mall greenery.

It was not only, as National Park Service spokesman Robert Stanton told the crowd, "Undoubtedly the largest dance in history to be held between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monumet," but also a remarkable testimonial to the contemporary amplitude, diversity and vitality of dance in Washington.

The ceterpiece of the event was a brief but amazingly pithy dance for all 800 choreographed by Lerman to Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," as rendered by the D.C. Youth Orchestra. The recurrent motif of arms reaching sunward in a jubilant stretch -- 1,600 of them -- turned the piece into a grand paean to freedom. Thereafter, the companies decsended to the Mall past a "reviewing stand," as area dance writers and critics introduced each troupe in turn.

After a panorama of performances ranging from ballet and jazz to highland flings and fllamenco, the group reassembled for a repeat performance of Lerman's Fanfarade and welcoming remarks from Stanton and Patrick Hayes, managing director of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which produced the event. Composer Copland also sent a message which read in part, "Onward and upward with all the diverse strains of dance and music here in America."

The event ended fittingly enough with an audience participation dance, and enormous congea-like circle dance from Ghana, taught and led by Washington's Melvin Deal.