"THERE'S NO better time than now," says Carla Perlo, "to give the message to young people . . . to take the lead and move forward with our legacy." Perlo stands at the helm of another year -- the 18th -- of the venerable DanceAfrica DC 2005, which began Monday and concludes this weekend at Dance Place with dozens of indoor and outdoor performances, master classes and an outdoor African marketplace. It's a festive time: This year, 15 African, Afro-Cuban and hip-hop companies will dance and play at six performances Saturday and Sunday.

It's also a time to look back and move forward, Perlo says, in light of the event's theme: "Our Legacy." "We've come of age. DanceAfrica has come of age," she says. "Many of our leaders are looking at approaching their senior years." Companies such as Melvin Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, among the region's first African troupes, and the unstoppable Kankouran West African Dance Company have participated in DanceAfrica from its inception. Perlo, in honoring the past and making way for the future, says, "There's a tradition and spirit [in these dances] that instructs us.

"Throughout our region people are expressing the diversity of cultures, embracing each other and each others' cultures. We're here to share that richness."

Havana Select, a local Afro-Cuban ensemble of singers, musicians and dancers, vividly demonstrates that cultural confluence. "Cuba is a cauldron where African drumming meets the European aesthetic," says percussionist Steve Bloom, a founding member of Havana Select and co-founder of Dance Place. Bloom, a Wheaton resident, has spent years studying and playing with master bata drummers, learning the intricate rhythmic variations of the double-headed, hour-glass-shaped drum, which is used in both folklore performances and ceremonial rituals of the Afro-Cuban syncretic religion Santeria.

"We have learned this directly through masters of the tradition," Bloom says of his Havana Select colleagues. "We've been schooled in the Old World traditional ways. What makes it African? That would be the transmission of knowledge from the past into our present culture."

Among DanceAfrica's newest recruits, Culture Shock DC is a young, multicultural group dedicated to promoting healthy, nonviolent lifestyles and community involvement through hip-hop dance. Brian Resurreccion, the Fort Washington company's director, is jubilant about joining the ranks of so many illustrious African companies. Culture Shock, whose nine dancers rehearse, teach and choreograph collaboratively at Thomas Circle Sports Club in the District, excels at old-school breaking, popping and locking as well as newer inventive moves flavored with a variety of dance forms.

"For me," Resurreccion says, "hip-hop is something that grabs and uses all forms of dance -- Asian, European, African." Having been raised on Filipino cultural dances, he is just now beginning to assimilate how deeply the roots of hip-hop are planted in African dance. "There's a very big relationship," he acknowledges, "in the rhythms . . . and in the joyfulness of the movement. What we do doesn't have so much repetition, and we try to mix it up. Some of our dances directly incorporate African dance into our creative choreography. . . . It's definitely a bridge to urban culture." And a legacy that pays tribute to a resplendent African past while moving unapologetically to an urban beat.

DANCEAFRICA DC 2005 -- Saturday and Sunday. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600.

African rhythms and movement come alive with the African Heritage Dancers & Drummers, appearing at DanceAfrica DC.