Why do they call it the American Dance machine ?

Machine implies anonymous, cold unfeeling production, which has very little to do with the emotional, utterly human show presented at Wolf Trap last night.

Preservation is what the American Dance Machine is all about. Unlike other art forms, live dance has a way of eluding various keepers of the historical flame. If the choreography of a Martha Graham or a Jose Limon can fade into the night, who could expect numbers from mere Broadway shows to last? Well, Dance Machine's director/founder Lee Theodore has ferreted out, or commissioned reconstructions of, a whole slew of dances.

Even out of context, these numbers tell stories, create characters.When guest star Ann Reinking, of the long legs and the raspy, sexy voice, launches into the "Shriners' Dance" from "Bye Bye Birdie," we peg her immediately: She's a "nice" girl out for a wild and crazy time, but the only place she can find to break loose is at a meeting of the Shriners.

Using their long banquet table as her base, she performs splits before their wide open eyes, slides head first down one man's front, and eventually drags each guy under the table. Reinking's apeal is enormous: every flick of her hand, every blade-like kick is delivered with intelligence and precision.

Or what about former Graham dancer Janet Eilber's poignant rendition of Agnes De Mille's "Funeral Dance" from "Brigadoon?" Elibers' combination of upright, defiant Irish jigs and pain-ridden gestures of mourning present us with a clear picture of a woman torn between stiff-upper-lip tradition and personal anguish.

It's not only the lead dancers who shine; the entire 24-member troupe has been coached to perfection.In the course of the program they soft-shoe and barrel turn and can-can and clog dance and charleston their collective way through some 19 works. One minute they're decadent barflies, twisting and kissing through Ron Field's "Telephone Dance" from "Cabaret." Next, they've donned prom gowns and G.I. duds and bobby socks for Patricia Birch's ode to the '40s, "Charlie's Place."

Strange as it seems, intermission serves as the most moving and historically conscious time of all. For it's during that period that Harold "Stumpy Cromer, hoofer extraordinaire, does his stuff. This short round man in his sailor's suit regales us with anecdotes and dances that hark back to minstrel shows, the Cotton Club and class acts. He imitates Fred Astaire without Ginger Roger and Bill Robinson teaching Shirley Temple how to tap dance. Best of all, he sings, taps and plays a mean harmonica to Jerry Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." Stumpy has seen it all, and he knows how to share it -- with humor, with verve and with respect.