"Where's the lucky rock? Got to get some of that karma going," bellowed Jay Zabriskie, the director of WETA who was about to make some local history last night by initiating the first televising of Washington's annual City Dance festival.

Zabriskie was seated before a bank of monitors in a WETA truck outside Lisner Auditorium, inside which the performers and audience were primed for action. Picking up a small, smooth stone, which he caressed in his palms, Zabriskie then passed the "lucky rock" to the technical director at his side. "Rub it on your fingers, especially the fingers that hit the switcher," he advised. The switcher is a lever that would determine which of four TV cameras aimed at the stage inside the hall was to be recorded on tape at any given moment. In turn, all six people in the compartment rubbed the rock -- Zabriskie, the tech director, the assistant director, a timer, the producer and the assistant producer.

They were going to need all the luck they could get to bring off the project -- a joint venture involving the Washington Performing Arts Society, which mounts City Dance, the WETA staff and the seven dance companies chosen by audition for Lisner performances for this year's festival. The result, which airs tonight on Channel 26 for an hour starting at 10 p.m. (with a repeat scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m.) will carry City Dance, and its splendid showcasing of Washington area dance talent, to a far larger audience than ever before and, at the same time, document one of the city's significant cultural enterprises.

From the TV standpoint, dance is tricky, because, like a protest march or a ball game, it's a moving target, and one that requires very special handling to preserve its expressive features. These "ordinary" problems, however, were greatly amplified by last night's City Dance situation, in which each of seven very different troupes -- specializing in everything from disco, African and Spanish dance to classical ballet and varieties of modern dance -- demanded highly individual treatment. And the whole thing was being taped during a live performance to boot.

The process actually began Monday evening with the making of a "scratch" tape of the program so that Zabriskie could familiarize himself with the choreography and plan the shooting. The companies rehearsed at Lisner Tuesday evening, and again -- this time with costumes, lights, audio and cameras in place -- all yesterday afternoon right up to performance time. There were the inevitable snafus. Just before the actual taping was to start, for example, No. 2 camera started misbehaving. "Not No. 2," moaned Zabriskie, "If every other camera died, I could do the whole show on No. 2 if I had to, and not it goes funny on me!"

Things straightened out, however, and this and other hurdles were coolly scaled by the WETA crew in an atmosphere like that of mission control during a space launch. The outcome -- and the proof of the pudding -- will appear on our TV screens tonight, with newscaster J.C. Hayward as a gracious on-camera host. Among the works seen will be the premiere of a powerful duet by Pola Nirenska, "The Divided Self," stirringly danced by Jan Tievsky and Cheryl Koehler of Glen Echo Dance Theater. Glen Echo and the other six companies -- the D.C. Youth Ensemble, the Hoffman Dance Consort, the Washington Ballet, the Maryland Dance Theater, Raquel Pena's Spanish Dance Company and African Heritage Dancers and Drummers -- will complete City Dance '81 with life performances at Lisner tonight and tomorrow.