If anyone still held doubts about the universality of the human impulse to make and perform dances, the Smithsonian's World Explorer series would swiftly dispel them, with its ever-astonishing parade of far-flung terpsichorean treasures. This year's series began last night at Baird Auditorium with a program by the Okinawa Kabu-Dan (Song and Dance Ensemble), an exceptionally colorful troupe of 18 dancers and musicians, currently on its first North American tour.

Both China and Japan have left profound traces on Okinawan culture, but as last night's two-hour sampler demonstrated with a wide-ranging variety of dance forms, the peoples of this Pacific island chain have shaped highly distinctive styles of their own. Among the more familiar-looking and theatrically spectacular types were a festive Lion Dance (featuring a wonderfully droll, shaggy "monster" that rolls on the floor, wags its caboose and scratches its nose); a lovely processional for eight women with giant, blossom-shaped hats and bamboo castanets; and a martial dance based on karate, which is Okinawan in origin.

Most impressive, however, were the more unusual lyrical and dramatic pieces, including "Shudun," a solo female dance of romantic longing marked by extraordinarily delicate movements of the eye and head; and the "Hamlet"-like, 18th century "Kumi-udui," a tale of two sons avenging the murder of their royal father, depicted in song, declamation and dance of poignant subtlety.