The news this summer could best be described as grim and grimmer. So what was the biggest hit on television? ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," a spun-sugar confection in which not-quite-stars partnered with professional ballroom dancers to compete in the passionate tango, the grueling quickstep and the PG-13 rumba.

And what show is being touted by TV insiders as the next big thing? Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" (debuting Wednesday), which is described as basically "American Idol" with trips and stumbles instead of butchered high notes. As far as television is concerned, this is shaping up to be a Busby Berkeley kind of summer.

It makes sense that Tom Cruise and all those extras in "War of the Worlds" wouldn't be the only ones trying desperately to escape oppressive reality. Except for watching the White House squirm over the Karl Rove scandal, which I admit I find quite satisfying, there's precious little joy to be extracted from current events.

The bombings in London were pure horror. The news from Iraq is of unrelenting carnage. The suspense in Washington is whether the battle over the upcoming Supreme Court nomination will be an all-out, scorched-earth Armageddon or a Gettysburg from which both armies limp away wounded. Who wouldn't turn to escapist fluff for a bit of solace?

But why a hit show about ballroom dancing, of all things? One theory is that in this age of designer denim and casual Fridays, the audience just enjoyed seeing people dress up for a change. But even though female colleagues tell me that boxer Evander Holyfield -- the most improbable of the contestants -- looked great in white tie and tails, clothes alone don't explain the show's appeal. Some of the outfits sported by the "stars" and their partners were a bit too over-the-top for Mardi Gras.

Part of the show's appeal was John O'Hurley, the silver-haired actor last seen in "Seinfeld" as the catalogue magnate and one-time adventurer J. Peterman. O'Hurley competed skillfully and without taking himself too seriously -- qualities some of the others lacked. But that doesn't explain why the industry expects the forthcoming "So You Think You Can Dance" to do such big numbers.

I think the answer is simple: When the going gets tough, the tough go dancing.

"I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance," said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who had so many pithy things to say about dance that I've come to think of him as "Twinkletoes." Another of his aphorisms: "I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer."

Not everyone's wish for dancing skill is granted, of course. We all have friends who shun the dance floor as if it were the pit of hell, and when we pull them out there anyway we see why. But we also have friends whose incompetent flopping and flailing, nowhere in the vicinity of the music's beat, is nonetheless so filled with spirit and energy and happiness that the spectacle is irresistible, if a bit dangerous.

There's something elemental about dance, something that compels human beings to take both joy and refuge in ritual movement. The choreographer Martha Graham called dance "the hidden language of the soul." A definition of dance attributed to George Bernard Shaw highlights the connection with other basic urges: "A perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire."

Yes, we dance to seduce the opposite sex. Sometimes we dance to show off, to intimidate, to preen. But we also dance to ask for blessings, and to give thanks for blessings already received. We dance to banish evil spirits and to summon benevolent ones. We dance to begin things (at the freshman mixer) and to end them (at the prom). We dance at wedding receptions -- but not at divorce settlements, and that's just as well.

I think that at a time of war and discontent, a time when it's hard to escape feelings of anxiety about the future, we may be subconsciously drawn to the fluid release of dance as a reminder of the essential simplicity of life. We get preoccupied with all our worries -- money, work, kids, the economy, al Qaeda, Iraq -- and we forget that it's really not that complicated: Just get up and move to the music.

Children know that; they dance spontaneously. Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, in a column that provided grist for many commencement addresses, gave advice we should all heed: "Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room."

eugenerobinson@washpost.com