The audience that packed Baird Auditorium Saturday night, including yours truly, was swept away by the dazzle and swirl of American Ballroom Theater, in the company's Washington debut appearance.

Small wonder. The four deft pairs who constitute the troupe, led by artistic directors Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, put on as magical and transporting a program of dance as has been seen here in many a season. Performing to recordings of such chestnuts as "Night and Day," "In the Mood," "Besame Mucho" and "The Blue Danube," this quartet of couples transformed the small, bare stage into a romantic dreamland. Silky smooth, supple and as light as moths, the dancers unspooled ever more entrancing garlands of movement, with seemingly endless embellishments of rhythm, contour and accent.

Beyond the enchantment of the moment, the program also demonstrated the viability of ballroom dance as the basis of a theatrical art form. Stage dancing has always appropriated whatever raw material was historically at hand, from aristocratic courts and popular dance halls to farmhouses, village greens and city streets. Social dances, originating as courtship and recreation, have long been such a source -- where would "Swan Lake" be without the waltz? Ballroom dancing has also led a rather isolated existence, apart from night clubs, in an intricately organized competitive format. Fred Astaire gave the genre mass spectatorship, with a very special kind of help from the movie camera. But ballroom dance per se as a theatrical species is a relatively new phenomenon, and this is the raison d'e tre for American Ballroom Theater.

The company had its official launching at New York's Dance Theater Workshop last fall; the present complement of dancers, besides Dulaine and Marceau, includes Gary and Lori Pierce, Wilson Barrera and Margaret Burns, and Sarwat and Julia Kaluby -- charmers all. But a major portion of credit for the troupe's success belongs to choreographer John Roudis, a former adagio dancer with a genius for shaping individual numbers and then knitting them together into a developed, expressive continuum.

The program was divided into four segments, roughly along lines dictated by dance types -- fox trot, lindy, tango, rumba, cha-cha, waltz and so forth. The steps, dips, lifts, spins and swing-outs are mostly traditional ballroom elements of the "exhibition" type, and the floor patterns -- ovals, diamonds, snaking chains, etc. -- are conventional too. What's exceptional is Roudis' ability to tether these things into satisfying dramatic structures. The choreography gives the illusion of storytelling -- though no actual stories are told -- not only through gesture and glance, but by following a narrative arc of suspense, crescendo and fulfillment. And the dancers bring these structures to exhilarating life with the flirtatious, conversational intimacy of their manners.

The staging, by William Whitener, the lighting designs, by Phil Sandstrom, and particularly the beautifully apt, tasteful but uncredited costuming (unlike the gaudy kitsch common in competitive ballroom) did much to enhance the production, especially in a theater lacking adequate space and facilities for such an event. "It only happens when I dance with you, that trip to heaven 'til the dance is through," sings Astaire in the background to one number -- it could be the troupe's motto. If you missed the Saturday night or Sunday matinee performances, don't despair entirely; the company will be at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in October.