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Dance: Quick steps to the brighter side of life

YOU WOULD have to be mad to watch the whole of this evening's Dance Night on BBC2 from start to finish. But you would be crazy to miss it altogether. The opportunity to be instructed in the waltz, jive and salsa by that big fat show-off Alexei Sayle (no, that's his own description, not mine) is too funny to miss. Will he manage to convince the Great British Public that "dancing is beautiful. It'll make you live longer, be nicer, stand taller, smile brighter, and think more interesting thoughts". Well, I know it's true, but I'm biased.

His partner for the evening is the ballet dancer Deborah Bull, and she certainly has some interesting thoughts, even if they are not always convincing. Anyone would have to admit that it is a little bizarre to hear her claiming that the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan introduced realism into ballet, while the camera shows her in one of his works, held upside down, high above the glamorous Adam Cooper's head during what is supposed to be a wild seduction scene. We know about the Kama Sutra, but this is going too far.

Bull and Sayle are the hosts for the whole show, starting at 6.00 and going on until 1.50 tomorrow, and besides their nine highly varied main items they introduce some short archive films (from Torvill and Dean's Bolero to Best Ballroom) plus assorted celebrities from many fields telling about "my first dance lesson". Two feature films offer solid entertainment, and even if you feel, like me, that A Chorus Line lost a lot on being transferred from stage to screen, the Australian comedy Strictly Ballroom never misses a point with its canny, hilarious yet touching conflict between innovators and traditionalists.

If star quality is what you are after, dance doesn't come starrier than Fonteyn and Nureyev in Marguerite and Armand. Fonteyn's contribution, reprised from her 1979 series Magic of the Dance (we deserve to see the whole of that again, soon), is a reminder that she was not only the best ballerina the Royal Ballet ever produced, but the best talker too: wise, witty and well-informed. Eat your heart out, Deborah Bull, famous as today's talking ballerina. Her courage in having ideas of her own is terrific, but I want more argument about the question she poses tonight - "Why is practically every woman I dance created by a man?" - while her comments on some of the greatest past (male) choreographers, and her illustration of their works, will leave many balletomanes wondering why the Royal Ballet School doesn't teach better dance history and a better grasp of style and content.

Bull is doubtless delighted that women contribute so much to the creative parts of the evening. Perhaps she can explain what Clara van Gool's short film Nussin is actually about, with its murderous couples trapped in a snowy railway station, but somehow managing to luxuriate in hot baths. Rosemary Lee's Infanta, I suspect, is not actually about anything, except a young girl with a fascinating face dancing through a formal garden - but the child really does fascinate.

Siobhan Davies's The Art of Touch is something else again - one of the best works of the best living British choreographer, excitingly danced by the excellent dancers she made it for, inspired by Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas and a modem supplement for harpsichord by Matteo Fargion. Look how wonderfully it is filmed, too, under Ross MacGibbon's direction: this must be the best thing that sometimes infuriating chap (remember his daft Nureyev documentary?) has done.

Davies's work is not everybody's cup of tea, but those who like it will love it. Others may go for Clubbing, Marcus Ryder's film about young people who live only for the hours when they can dress up, make up, finesse their way ahead of the queue, get high on drink or drugs, and dance the night away. Desperately they try to explain just what the appeal is, and if you don't understand, it's not for you (or me, thanks).

Any complaints? Frankly, yes; the evening tries to be too many things to too many people, and will leave each section of the audience wanting more of the kinds of dance they like, at the expense of the rest.

But it is worth a cheer or two that dear old Auntie Beeb has finally woken up to what good entertainment dance can be, and maybe we can hope they will in future squeeze just a little more of it, more regularly, into their programmes.

Meanwhile, enjoy; there must be something here that anyone can like, if only at the risk of living longer, standing taller and thinking more interesting thoughts.