WHY IS style so stylish these days? Over the past several decades the core of public attention seems to have shifted subtly from what's going on in the world to the way things happen. If the postwar era can be characterized by such phrases as "the atomic age," "the space age" and "the computer age," another arguably valid tag might be "the age of style consciousness."

The advent and perfecting of the technologies of recording--from photographs to phonographs, from motion pictures and tape recorders to television and video casette recorders--has given us access to instant history, to unlimited powers of recall and comparison. We have, so to speak at our finger tips, the ability to contrast the ways we walk, talk, dress, eat, think, vote, suffer, fight or make love with the ways people next door and all over the globe do the same or similar things. "Life style" is a term of relatively recent coinage, and it's become one of the buzzwords of the times.

In the arts, the idea of style has been and remains such a pervasive and central conception that it is inevitably subject to periodic reexamination and redefinition, especially as perspective alters in reaction to newly emerging artistic currents. A recent instance was the annual conference of the Dance Critics Association, convened in New York City in June and devoted wholly to the theme of style, as manifest in choreography, dancing and criticism. There were panel discussions, film and video showings, workshops and performances, all aimed at exploring the question: "When we talk about style, what are we talking about?"

Is there such a thing as a "Balanchine style," and if so, how can it cover such a wildly divergent collection of ballets as Balanchine left us? Does it make sense to talk about a "Russian style" of dancing, and if so, how can it embrace both a Mikhail Baryshnikov and an Alexander Godunov, who seem poles apart as artists? Is a term like "postmodern" a designation of a style, a collection of techniques, an approach to dance structure, an atmosphere, or merely a fiction devised by critics to obscure the differences between a Lucinda Childs, a Trisha Brown, a Kei Takei and a David Gordon? If styles "exist," what are their determinants--what factors in choreography or performance allow us to indentify or characterize a style? How does the "style" of a fey, romantic ballet like "Giselle," for instance, differ from its choreographic content or form? Such were the bugaboos the DCA confab attempted to grapple with.

It goes almost without saying that no consensus was reached. The notion of style, like those of "freedom," "spirit," "reason" or any number of other elusive abstractions, is fundamentally too vague and protean to be pinpointed and graven in stone for all time. Nevertheless the conference had light to shed, from new twists on old insights, to unexpected reinterpretations, to a clearer understanding of how confusion arises in contemporary disputes about style.

The logical starting point for such exploration is the traditional usage of the term "style." Early in the conference, someone cited the celebrated maxim of Count Buffon--"style is the man"--and the theme of style as a key to the uniqueness of an individual person or work reappeared like a leitmotif throughout the discussion. Other commonly understood meanings of style were given summary expression in a classic essay by the art critic Meyer Schapiro in 1953:

"By style is meant the constant form--and sometimes the constant elements, qualities and expression--in the art of an individual or a group. The term is also applied to the whole activity of an individual or society, as in speaking of a 'life style' or the 'style of a civilization' . . . But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works may be measured."

It's plain enough that such definitions as Schapiro's, though of some help, raise as many questions as they answer. What is a "system of forms"? What is "a quality," and "meaningful expression"? What, exactly, is "the personality of the artist"? And so on. Nevertheless, a certain number of common-sense notions have to be taken for granted at the outset if any such discussion is to move forward at all, and wisely, the DCA conferees tried to keep axiomatic, metaphysical probing to a reasonable minimum.

In the first DCA panel, surveying approaches to style among various artistic fields apart from dance, music critic John Rockwell compressed Schapiro's ideas into the succinct phrase, "shared attributes." Style, that is, consists of those features held in common among the works of an individual artist, or among works by artists of a given period, or nation, or "school." And he argued interestingly that though artists are resistant to critical pigeonholing, there are recognizable attributes--parodistic irony, for example, in much of modern music, art and theater--that transcend individuals and that permit us to discern genuine trends or movements in artistic creation.

Fashion writer Kennedy Fraser lamented that style has become, in recent times, an end in itself rather than a symptom of common practice. Fashion, she said, has turned into fashionability, and celebrity based on accomplishment has been replaced by instant sensation based on publicity and promotion, largely manufactured by the media. Style, in short, has become a debasement of fashion, a quest for salable novelty, and this trend, she feared, has spilled over into the arts as well.

Art critic Craig Owens inveighed against style from another point of view. Style, he insisted, is a stifling, tyrannical concept, because it nourishes frozen norms and standards that stand in the way of creative invention and radical departure. The great modern artists--Picasso, as a prime example--made war on the notion of style, Owens maintained, by constantly frustrating the expectation of unity in the work of a master. Picasso changed "styles" almost as often as he painted pictures. The idea of a "classical" phase or period in the evolution of a style erects an artificial and reactionary barrier to innovation--any work that doesn't fit the "classical" mold is automatically condemned as deficient or decadent, Owens maintained.

Actress Viveca Lindfors sounded the oft-heard artists' plaint over the wanton use of stylistic qualifiers by critics. "The outside world seems to need to put us all in a box, but it's dangerous to try to label things all the time. Style is used by some actors as a crutch, but the important thing is finding the truth of a role in yourself, not trying to act Greek by imitating Greeks."

On a subsequent panel, dance historian-critic Sally Banes advocated an open-minded view of the multiple, often conflicting usages of the term "style." She ticked off a catalogue of the ways in which the word is applied in dance writings to designate historical periods such as the Baroque or Romantic; genres like tap dance or jazz dance; "schools" of choreography, like the "downtown" school or the "Cunningham school"; national or ethnic idioms such as Hungarian or Flamenco or African; stages in the work of a single choreographer, like Martha Graham's "early, percussive style" or her "Greek phase"; the style of individual dancers; and so forth.

Let's not discard this variety of meanings, Banes urged, they each have their uses--but let's be more careful to specify which sense of style we have in mind. Where we get into trouble, she said, is when people use opposing connotations of style without being explicit about them, so that the exchange of ideas is actually at cross-purposes.

Choreographer Peter Anastos observed that choreographers don't work in a vacuum--each one comes with a background in a certain tradition. "Most choreographers emulate some model, and develop their own style only as an extension of or break from their model. Balanchine didn't make up his style, the 'Balanchine style,' from scratch--he grew up with the ballets of Petipa, he admired Petipa, and that was his base. You might say it wasn't until he created 'Apollo,' in 1928, that he became Balanchine, that he found his own artistic self, or style."

The late George Balanchine, the single most sweepingly influential figure in 20th-century choreography worldwide, occupied a whole day's agenda at the DCA meeting. Dance historian Richard Buckle noted that Balanchine went through as prodigious a stylistic metamorphosis as Picasso, shuttling freely between the Russian neo-imperial manners of "Diamonds," for example, to the jazzy, American show-biz traits of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," to the abstract, "interplanetary" geometrics of "Agon" or "The Four Temperaments," to the Gallic suavity of "Emeralds," and on and on.

Critic Nancy Goldner made the point that Balanchine was consciously creating not just individual ballets but an integral repertory, designed to exhibit his dancers and his company from as many stylistic vantage points as possible. One consequence of this repertorial approach, she said, was that "at no point in his evolution could one say this is the final, crystallized realization of his style--we thought of the finale of 'Symphony in C' as representing the ultimate in balletic spectacle, but then he gave us 'Union Jack'; we thought we'd reached the upper limit of his technical innovations in 'Agon,' until 'Ballo della Regina' and the new 'Mozartiana' came along."

Suki Schorer, once a Balanchine dancer and now a teacher at the master's School of American Ballet, said that style was never referred to directly by Balanchine--"I didn't even know what 'style' was," she said. "I knew only that he had a technique that he taught to his dancers and used in his ballets, and the techique gave the dancers and the works a special look--that's the only definition of style I'm comfortable with."

With the help of a young, female SAB student, Schorer demonstrated aspects of the Balanchine technique and recalled some of her mentor's most piquant maxims. "He'd say," Schorer remarked, " 'God gave us a thumb and four fingers--don't hide anything, let's see them all; your hand must be like a paint brush, with the bristles always alive.' He'd say, 'I'm not teaching health--if you want health, go to a health club, get a massage, and stop dancing.' He'd say about plie's, the bend is never static, it mustn't die, you go down to come up."

Schorer also recounted an episode that illustrated the stylistic perils of Balanchine's personal method of teaching. "He taught by means of repetition and imitation--he'd show us, and we'd follow. Once, in recent years, he was rehearsing the finale of 'Symphony in C,' demonstrating the technique. But he was also having a lot of trouble with his arthritis. The next day in the rehearsal studio, all the girls were doing arthritic tendus!"

The final DCA sessions were devoted to the topic of black dance in America and the stylistic controversies it has spurred. Katherine Dunham, the great pioneer of Afro-American dance in this country, was on hand to share recollections of her career and the resistance she encountered from a white-oriented society. One such problem was the continual white appropriation of black innovations in style and technique. Dunham recalled that when she worked in Hollywood in the '40s, "all the top film stars were taking classes with me . . . They wouldn't let us blacks do the dancing in the movies, though it was our style they were emulating--they'd do it themselves, the Betty Grables and so on. I never got credited with the choreography or dance direction--it was always Hermes Pan or someone like that."

Choreographer-director-designer Geoffrey Holder delivered a stinging indictment of white artists and critics who exploited the creativity of Dunham, Pearl Primus (another DCA guest) and others while treating their work with scarcely disguised condescension. "When a black artist undulates his or her pelvis," he said, "it's invariably described as 'bumps and grinds.' When Martha Graham does the same thing, it becomes 'contraction and release.' Though there are well-developed technical vocabularies for the varieties of black, African and Caribbean dance, critics who haven't taken the trouble to learn them continue to write about 'hip-shaking, finger-wagging hootchy-kootchy.' "

The puritanical tradition in white America, Holder declared, has led critics to regard any movement involving the pelvis as a "lower," animalistic order of activity, despite its African roots in sacred rites. And the same orientation had resulted in a totally distorted view of the value and function of body fat in this country. "Have you ever noticed that the people who go to health food shops don't look healthy?" he remarked.

In retrospect, the conference made it clear that apparent contradictions frequently arise in discussions of style because at least two fundamentally antipodal senses of the word collide head-on. In the first case, the use of stylistic terminology as description clashes or is confused with its use as prescription, or evaluation. To say that Cunningham's choreography involves the use of space, not as a background for a centrally focused action, but as a "field" in which multiple, simultaneous events of equal value and interest occur, is to describe an aspect of Cunningham's choreographic style. To say, however, that a performance of, say, "Swan Lake," was lacking in stylistic refinement is to use some implied concept of classical style as a norm, a standard, against which the performance is to be rated.

In the second case, the use of the term "style" as an indication of unique individuality conflicts with the use of the same term as a means of linking together whole groups of works or performances through recurrent features. When one speaks of the dance style of a Suzanne Farrell or Rudolf Nureyev, the reference is usually to those qualities that make Farrell or Nureyev the distinct artists they are, the qualities in their performance that they do not share with other ballet dancers. But when one speaks of the Danish style or the Ailey style (in performance), what's meant is those traits that Danish dancers or Ailey dancers have in common, despite individual nuances or differences. The key to a rapprochement of such conflicts lies in discourse that is not only clearer and more specific, but that is also up front about its prior assumptions.

Arguments about style are never likely to cease. But the word, as a tool for the understanding of character, modality or essence, is too basic and its range of application too broad to suffer banishment. "Style," in short, isn't about to go out of style.