When Carla Perlo, director of the Dance Place, queried the audience at last night's performance as to how many had come there for the first time, a goodly portion responded. This mass of newcomers had been drawn there by Dance Africa, D.C., an innovative program now running for the third year.

With major foundation support -- including, for the first time this year, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation -- this ambitious festival gives area residents the opportunity to experience two weekends of immersion in African culture. Lasting from noon to sunset, events this weekend included music, dance performances and parties, and master classes, along with an ongoing bazaar featuring African and African American art, literature, food, clothing, crafts, jewelry and instruments.

After moving inside from the bazaar, the audience last night was given another rousing welcome to Dance Place by Odadaa!, a company of African dancers and musicians. Directed by master drummer and choreographer Yacub Addy, Odadaa! is devoted to the preservation of traditional rhythms, songs and dances of Ghana, which it supplements with contemporary compositions (using traditional acoustic instruments) by Addy and Okoe Thompson. Using a wide variety of percussion instruments (drums of every shape and size, maracas, a balaphpon) and flutes, the members of Odadaa! create complex and constantly shifting polyrhythms, which in turn drive their bodies to more extravagant physical expression. With Odadaa! it is not easy to draw the line between music and dance. The dancers take their turns singing and playing instruments, and the musicians also dance as they perform.

One of the great virtues of this company is its ability to re-create the feeling of traditional festival in theatrical spaces. While thoroughly professional, the company retains a feeling of casual spontaneity. The performers are internally focused, so that they retain the feeling characteristic of ritual and social dance. The emphasis is upon an emotional and kinetic response to the music rather than on the creation of stage "pictures."

This sense of internal drive is heightened by the structure of the choreography to allow for the expression of individual style by each performer. The same movement performed in unison can look radically different on each of these dancers, who do not have to subsume their personalities to achieve an ensemble feeling.

The dances performed by Odadaa! are, without exception, astonishingly fast. Because the dancers appear so relaxed, it is easy to forget that what they are doing is highly virtuosic. Initiated in the waist and pelvis, the movement travels out freely to responsive limbs. This emphasis upon the torso dictated the costumes for both "Adzogbo" and "Bambaya." In "Adzogbo," women set grass skirts in humorously magnified motion by shimmying the pelvis. "Bambaya" had both men and women wearing a belt of multicolored pompoms, which they twisted into a similarly dazzling display with quick, thrusting twists of the waist. Another of the offerings, "Kpanlogo," a contemporary social dance from Accra, is unabashedly seductive. It portrays a man responding with crazy joy to the womanliness of his beloved.

And finally it was the audience's turn. The Dance Place really got to shaking in the second half of the performance, which evolved into a dance party. Most of those in attendance eventually answered Addy's invitation to move to the ensemble's rhythms on the stage. Bopping, shaking and stomping to the infectious music, these "performers" heeded Addy's invitation to forget about mimicking the virtuosity they had just seen, but instead to "just do anything" in reaction to the spirit of the music.

But Addy knew that what he was asking was already familiar to the audience. Watching it cut loose brought home the realization of just how thoroughly contemporary Western dances and rhythms are grounded in African roots. As a result, the amateur dancers looked comfortable, some even elegant. And even those who kept their seats stamped and nodded along.

Kudos to Perlo and the Dance Place for the exciting vision they bring to the cultural life of Washington. Dance Africa, D.C., continues next weekend with the outdoor bazaar, master classes and performances by Memory of African Culture, Wo'se Dance Theater and Magic Dances of Zaire.