The image of flamenco dance held by those uninitiated into its mysteries is of a kind of Spanish tap dance. For those at last night's Terrace Theater performance of the Maria Benitez Spanish Dance Company, this simplification was set to rights.

What was revealed was an ancient and virtuosic form, as highly stylized as ballet. But this dancing does not abide by the artificial restraints of Baroque convention that form the basis of ballet. This is all heat. The dance smolders until it seems as if the floorboards must burst into flames under the feet of the dancers.

It is definitely not a dance form for neutral viewing. Its effect is kinesthetic exhiliration and emotional fascination. The intensity of Beni'tez in her "Ensueno" literally gave me chills. It is an experience distinct and refreshing for one raised on ballet.

In addition to the familiar stamping--and this at speeds well beyond which most people can clap their hands--this refined style involves a complex e'paulement, a filigree play of arms that ballet left behind in its French court origins, hand gestures as intricate as Indian mudras, and subtly articulate feet. Unlike the rigidly square balletic stance, the flamenco posture is boldly convex: a peacock stance in which the shoulders are held back, the head and chest are pulled proudly up, the lower back is arched, and the base is kept narrow and parallel. It is a stance that suggests tortured depths and complexity of emotive expression.

Benitez and her partner, Roberto Lorca, were alternately brooding and explosive; Silvia Morales and Manolo de Co'rdoba more open and sunny. Guitarist Guillermo Rios and the delightfully raspy-voiced singer, Luis Vargas, also stirred passions with their accompaniment.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8.