"This is one of the most erotic things I've ever seen," whispered one woman seated in Baird Auditorium Saturday night. It wasn't an X-, or even R-rated movie she was watching; it was three young men slapping their colorfully clothed chests and thighs, clapping their hands, beating on drums and tapping their feet against the floor. Rhythm--both visual and aural--was the excitement here.

This number, "Tune for K.B.," was only one of more than a dozen rhythmic inventions that burst forth during an amazing program of tap dancing by the California-based Jazz Tap Ensemble and their special collaborator, the celebrated hoofer Charles "Honi" Coles. Featured as part of the Smithsonian's first-rate American Dance Experience series, these artists proved technically brilliant, charming, eclectic, humorous and refreshingly down-to-earth. The musicians--pianist/composer Paul Arslanian, percussionist Keith Terry and bass player Tom Dannenberg--shift effortlessly from be-bop to rock to free-form jazz, delight in offbeat acoustic sources (spoons, bells, the sounds their mouths, hands and assorted other body parts can produce) and even contribute to the dancing.

The dancers--Camden Richman, Fred Strickler, Lynn Dally and the great master Coles--could not be more different. Tall, model-slim Richman combines the erect carriage of the classical dancer with the fierce staccato feet of the best rhythm tappers. Strickler, with his boyish looks and handlebar eyebrows, would look right at home in a '40s movie musical; he moves with the precision and buoyant grace of a Gene Kelly. Dally is the gutsy mama, the comedian of the group, the one who best captures the soul of rhythm. Then there's Honi Coles, who can segue from a dreamy slow soft shoe to a peerless portrait of "Bojangles" Robinson to an improvisation so complex and quick that it makes the listener dizzy.

The most inspiring thing about this tap tribute was the almost palpable good feeling and give-and-take between performers. In the midst of "Me and You and Monk," a Richman/Arslanian tribute to the late Thelonious Monk, the pianist ambled over to center stage and joined in a sparse and sensitive tap duet. Dally's "Spoon River" featured a country band composed of the three musicians and Richman on sand blocks, accompanying Dally as she whirled as if caught in a cyclone. Coles and Richman joined forces for "Misbehavin'," a gentle challenge dance that pointed up the stylistic ties that can bind a 71-year-old Philadelphian smoothie with a young, West Coast perfectionist.

Perhaps the sweetest collaboration of all came during the curtain call, when all six members of the Jazz Tap Ensemble joined Coles in the Shim Sham Shimmy, a 32-bar routine that has come to be known as the hoofers' national anthem. Clapping, slapping and tapping in unison, the seven performers shared in a tradition and persuaded an ecstatic crowd that rhythm is the most universal of languages.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8 in Baird Auditorium.