Leave it to Melvin Deal to think up something like the Big Ladies Project. The man who has introduced hordes of Washingtonians to the glories of African dancing and drumming has given inspiration and instruction to a group of women possessed of considerable girth and, as it happens, considerable grace as well.

These well-trained, thoroughly gutsy Big Ladies joined forces with members of Deal's African Heritage Troupe last night at the Lansburgh Building for a rousing performance of "Abang."

Deal says his 30-minute suite derives from a Nigerian rite of passage that is "precedent of the debutante ball": Virgin maidens are shut away and "fattened" -- spiritually and physically -- and are subsequently displayed to the village chief and paraded before young and eligible men. This grand occasion is accentuated by the entrance of Amazon warriors and matriarchs.

Deal's version of "Abang" begins with the sound of drums. In strides the chief, a huge man wearing a floral skirt, top hat, shades and beads, surrounded by his parasol- and fan-toting attendants.

As soon as he sits on his throne, a dozen maidens -- festooned in feathers, scarves and shells -- enter in a line. First they move in unison, shaking their hips like mad, beating intricate patterns into the floor, kicking like hyperactive ponies. Then each maiden makes a personal and often sensuous dance statement as if to prove she's ready to face the world.

With the entrance of the Amazons and the matriarchs, "Abang" becomes a delirious, visually awesome spectacle. These women are big, proud and almost frightening in the way they take possession of the space. Some carry gold shields and staffs. Others balance immense headdresses of tinsel and multicolored pompons. This startling processional ends with a communal burst of celebration that manifests itself in bold rhythms and frenzied footwork.