The dance is already in progress, no matter when we join it.

The soloists and the groups, the residents and the summer pilgrimages are all in motion. Each adds to the strangest of constellations, an alternative zodiac whose nodes stretch from Raleigh’s BTI Center to the Ark, Duke University’s amazing 105-year-old dance studio, from Carolina Friends School, tucked away on a back road in Orange County, to the stage at Raleigh’s Enloe High, and from Cary Academy to the sacred bantaba invoked each summer during the American Dance Festival, on the front lawn of Duke’s East Campus.

Begin with the American Dance Festival, given its impact on modern dance worldwide–and given the fact that it just closed its 71st season at the end of July. Easily one of the largest modern dance festivals in the world, the ADF moved to Duke from Connecticut College in 1978. In doing, it changed the summer migratory patterns of modern dancers and choreographers the world over–and also began altering the regional landscape of dance here year-round.

Call it “The ADF Effect.” Students, master teachers and choreographers of note spend six weeks on the Duke East Campus–and every year, a few more decide to stay. It’s how we got the African American Dance Ensemble: Chuck Davis came here, liked it and moved his company south. It’s how a stream of visiting dancers and choreographers find locals whose work interests them, and begin collaborations that continue even after the principals return to their homes.

It’s also one of the things makes being a choreographer in this area a bit more daunting than the usual college-town gig. If you’re someone like Robin Harris at N.C. State, Carol Kyles Finley at Meredith College or Tyler Walters in the Duke dance program, audiences aren’t comparing your work to the choreographer at the campus down the road. They’re comparing it to the latest work by Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones or Shen Wei–all recent guests at ADF. Each summer, the festival commissions a host of new works by some of the leading lights of this generation. Congratulations–they’re the neighbors, and their standards are the ones you’re up against.

A good thing that most are up for the comparison. Harris’ one-woman dance department regularly takes N.C. State students to the Kennedy Center for the finals at the American College Dance Festival; Finley’s work has toured the state with the North Carolina Dance Festival, and Walters’ esoteric mix of balletic technique and modern-to-postmodern sensibilities has won international awards.

Duke’s dance program is undeniably the region’s strongest at the collegiate level, with a robust faculty including the leonine Clay Taliaferro, who danced with Jose Limon, and African dance avatar Ava Vinesett.

Since no dance program exists at UNC, students lead the way. Modernextension is the oldest student dance group, but last year saw new development–and new companies–beginning to sprout there. Meanwhile, journeywoman choreographer Beth Wright continues challenging students at Peace College with gratifying results.

But intriguing dance isn’t just coming out of area colleges. We’re also seeing advanced work, improbably, from select high schools, as well. The robust tradition at Enloe High, with recent teachers including Tiffany Rhynard, Heather Mims and Jodi Obeid, has manifested in seasonal concerts and an enviable yearly invitational benefit in the fall. Carolina Friends School is producing dancers like Jessica Harris (with Shen Wei in New York) and choreographers like Tommy Noonan, who blew us all away at a student concert at ADF this summer. Raleigh’s Rainbow Dance Company and Arts Together have given the world most of Even Exchange and hundreds more besides.

Nor can we hardly forget North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, which schools a troupe of hoofers–and then takes them to New York, South America and Europe on yearly tours. If you see these prodigies once, you’ll understand why.

Our independent companies include Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, a professional New York group that established a Southern base of operations in Durham several years ago in response to the region’s shifting demographics.

Our locally based independents include several noted artistic colonies. With contributing choreographers like Michelle Pearson from Liz Lermon Dance Exchange, Raleigh’s Even Exchange has distinguished itself in recent years in its collaborations on community-based artwork. The company has incorporated workshops into their evening-length works with groups including Vietnam-era veterans, homeless women and at-risk youth.

While choreographers Laura Thomasson, Melissa Chris and various co-conspirators challenged regional dance-goers in late-winter concerts under the Independent Dancemakers name, the crew went on hiatus this spring. We understand they’ll be back–as ever–sometime near Groundhog’s Day. In their absence, Five Chick Posse has produced some of our sharpest young choreographers at St. Augustine’s College.

Choreo Collective, a hive of dancers and choreographers placing works on one another, has one of the area’s more interesting–and uneven–recent histories. The group has encouraged regional filmmakers to work with dance in interesting late-night showcases at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Theater. It’s given us fascinating work by choreographers including Caroline Williford, Susan Cantwell and Nancy Carter, among others. And some of the group’s strongest work has come out of their singularly improbable collaborations with non-dancers, in which they’ve asked teachers and visual artists–people totally untrained in dance–to actually choreograph a new work on them. But a change in the energy–and a possible slip in editorial standards–accompanied a transition in power from originating members to a new guard over the past year, making this a group we’re watching with equal anticipation and concern in the coming year.

All of which leaves Rachel Brooker, Allison Waddell and Betsy Ward-Hutchinson, three of the more interesting wild cards in our deck of lone choreographers.

Oh, and there’s ballet too. Carolina Ballet, to start with–the multi-million dollar company that the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Robert Weiss began here six years ago. Weiss’ Carolina mix has included a healthy serving of Balanchine, strategic collaborations with the Ciompi Quartet and the N.C. Museum of Art, new works (including a Weiss Messiah beautifully riddled with tableaux vivants out of the Baroque era), singular contributions from guest choreographer Lynn Taylor-Corbett and company choreographers Tyler Walters and Timour Bourtasenkov–and even the occasional nod to the region’s modern dance community.

But we can’t ignore the work from Mary LeGere’s Raleigh Dance Theater–particularly given the company’s execution of M’Liss Dorrance’s Little Women and Walters’ String Theory last fall. And Chapel Hill Ballet School is poised to launch a new initiative aimed at getting more males into ballet this fall.

Major dates to mark, particularly for dance practitioners: The North Carolina Dance Alliance’s annual event, which will gather dance practitioners from around the state Nov. 4-7 at Duke, and the Raleigh dates of the North Carolina Dance Festival, Jan. 28-29.