It's hard to put into a nutshell the sorts of things one takes away from an event as rich and various as the African Heritage Center's eighth anniversary celebration, which concluded with a second evening of festivities Saturday night. The heart of the matter, though, was a sense of dance and its sister arts as necessities of human expression.

Because the arts can be entertaining, they're often thought of or described as diversions, with the implication that they represent escape from the main business of life. The African Heritage jamboree demonstrated the contrary that the crux of the artistic experience is an affirmation of the vital spirit which binds all living creatures to each other.

Outwardly, the keynote of Saturday's four hours of jubilant activity may have seemed to be diversity. Yet everything that occurred found a meaningful place within the evening's central theme.

The opening libation ceremony summoned the spirits of ancestors and asked for blessing on their living and future progeny. Familial continuity, too, seemed implicit in the honoring of teachers, as well as others who have been instrumental in fostering the arts of Washington's black American Community. iIn all, 14 awards were presented by African Heritage director Melvin Deal to dancers, acrobats, musicians, arts administrators and media professionals of the D.C. Baltimore area. The honorees were: Barnette Williams; Brenda Jordan and Carmen Davis; Edna Long and Phil Cole; Liz Lerman; Phil Ogilvie; Harold Burke; Jerry Philips; James Early; Mildred Bautista; Russell Nesbit; John Taylor; and Carol Joyner (baba Ngoma).

Most telling of all were the performances by a total of 10 groups. Musical ensembles like the D.C. Percussion Society and the Baltimore-based African Roots of Jazz gave an object lesson in the connections between the sounds and rhythms of Africa and those of contemporary urban America. The guest Kubata Ensemble from Cuba, a superb vocal and percussion group, demonstrated the blending of African and Latin elements. Groups like the youthful Bren-Car Dancers and the D.c. Youth Ensemble, beaming with the unspoiled joy of dancing, exhibited further links to tap, jazz and disco idioms. Not least, of course, was the splendid African Heritage Dancers and Drummers troupe itself, which illustrated the transmission of artistic legacy from continent to continent in the thrilling movements of three generations of dancers.