"The drums talk and so do the bodies in motion -- unless you know their language, you'll miss the meaning of the dance," said a Ghanaian gentleman during the intermission of the African Heritage dance celebration at Gallaudet College last night.

He was referring to the war, harvest, play and mood themes in the music and choreography of Odomankoma Kyerema, a children's troupe from his country that currently is touring North America. But he was only partly right. There is something spookily awesome about a 9-year-old virtuoso, whether he is at the keyboard playing Mozart or wielding two crooked sticks over a set of mushroom-shaped drums and then taking a gourd in hand for a vibrating jig.

The special air of the young virtuoso and the quiet enjoyment of his slightly older colleagues from Ghana was clear, as was some of the social content of their performance. No one in the audience should have had difficulty recognizing the skill of the young performers' foot hooking and the subtle differentials of weight in some of the steps.

Not everyone, either, might be totally familiar with the language of the kids in the D.C. Youth Ensemble. Yet, for all their brass and savvy, it was apparent that they have discipline and the best of stage manners. They master a slew of performing skills--dancing, acting, singing--and combine forms and styles with ease. The counterpoint they managed between classroom balletics and street-corner "popping" was an instant hit.

Another combination, the fusion style of belly dancing, ballet and jazz that the D.C. Dance Theatre practices, is deficient not in skill but in freshness and humor. A nightclub rather than a theater would be the right frame for their display of tricks and torsos. There are some quite young dancers in this company, too.

The adults on the program were mostly members of African Heritage Dancers and Drummers. They presented Nigerian and Senegalese ceremonies. In a dance from Senegal based on the mating rite of cranes, there was a gradation of styles. Some of the Americans in the cast performed the rapid, chin-high stepping neatly and evenly; others seemed to be treading on coals. The leading male soloist, from Africa, attacked the movement with such ferocity that one hardly could see his limbs. Only the purpose of the step remained visible.

Master of ceremonies and organizer of the celebration was African Heritage's Melvin Deal.