Lee, Mass. — For 50 years people have motored up from New York or west from Boston to a little farm here to sit in a barn and watch some of the most interesting dancing of the times.
At the beginning, Walter Terry recalls, it was Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers, demonstrating that dance could be a manly art, and then serving hot beverages afterward to nimble young fans on pillows and to the ''towering dowagers of the Berkshires,'' ensconced in wicker chairs. Mr. Terry, now dance critic for Saturday Review Magazine and once director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, was a Boston Herald critic 49 years ago, when he first made the trek to Ted Shawn's barn.
He remembers that the Men Dancers used to leap out the barn door for their exits and change clothes behind bushes. Mr. Shawn had the only hot shower in the place; the Men Dancers - who also built barns to live and dance in, and cleared paths - bathed in an icy stream. Mr. Terry told Mr. Shawn that, if he didn't let him use his shower, he wouldn't be able to review the group's work since he couldn't stand bathing in mountain streams.
Mr. Shawn did let him use his shower, Mr. Terry recalled with delight. A gathering of dance fans, critics, and supporters of the festival, here last week for the 50th anniversary gala to open the festival, chuckled appreciatively from their chairs, where they were seated like '80s-style towering dowagers. Later, Clive Thompson, formerly of the Alvin Ailey company, danced ''O Brother Sun & Sister Moon,'' a simple, eloquent dance by Shawn, staged by Barton Mumaw, formerly one of the Men Dancers. It was a dance of sweeping arm gestures and deep emotion. Accompanied by Jess Meeker, playing the piano as he had for Shawn and the dancers, it was saved from being sadly nostalgic by the fact that the dance still looks striking.
''Winning Teams'' is an assortment of winning ballroom and adagio dance couples. Two of them performed at the gala. The women were as alert and tense as twigs, as the men wielded them like toreadors' capes, throwing them down and skimming them along the floor, whooshing them in dress-ruffling circles, and splitting away to show off on their own.
About 120 dancers are spending six to nine weeks at the school Shawn started in 1940, when he disbanded the Men Dancers and sold the farm to a corporation to become director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
As Liz Thompson, the festival's director for the past three years, puts it, ''They still have the same strenuous schedule (four dance classes a day), work hard, and concentrate on dance - and they still frolic and play in the same way.''
But maybe not exactly like the group that put on jazz records in the barn to dance to one night. Mr. Shawn, until Alvin Ailey came and opened his eyes, thought of jazz as decadent. Walter Terry recalls that he appeared in a bathrobe at the doorway of the barn, where the students were dancing, and declared: ''You have desecrated my temple.''
There are still no auditions, though an audition process may start for next year. All that is required of prospective dancers is that they be serious about dance. In the course of the six or nine weeks, Ms. Thompson says, ''they either get serious, or they decide they don't ever want to dance again.''
Jacob's Pillow, however, is known to the public not as a school but as a showcase for all kinds of dance. It still subscribes to Ted Shawn's idea that ''the art of the dance is too big to be encompassed by any one school, system, or style. . . . Dance includes every way that men of all races in every period of history have moved to express themselves.''
By the '50s, Ted Shawn had begun inviting dance companies from all corners of the earth. No lesser lights than the Royal Danish Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens first danced in America under the rafters of the Ted Shawn Theater, the barn that also happened to be the first theater in America designed especially for dance. There were also the national dancers of Ceylon, the Paris Opera Ballet, and dancers from India and Japan.
Ms. Thompson says she is staying within the formula she found when she accepted the festival's directorship three years ago, though ''perhaps I have enlivened it, brought it into the '80s.'' But the 50th anniversary season is strictly a tribute to Shawn.
The Grands Ballets Canadiens will be back again, and soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet opened the season with their distinctive, intimately scaled performances of the works of August Bournonville. A few dancers from the early touring groups danced among them, and it was a homey, if brilliant, evening.
''Everyone's talking about new, new, new,'' Ms. Thompson said. ''But Shawn's vision was a substantial one, and enduring.'' At every performance there will be original works by Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, with whom he founded the Denishawn school.
Shawn bought Jacob's Pillow after they separated and Denishawn closed, but it is still thought of by many as the basis of American modern dance. Several of their early works will be danced by Cynthia Gregory and Richard Cragun, of the American Ballet Theater and the Stuttgart Ballet, respectively, Aug. 6 and 7.
By longstanding tradition there are always new dancers from new places at Jacob's Pillow. Avant-garde dancers from Japan will perform July 13-15, and a modern English company called ''Second Stride'' is due July 16-17. The Paul Taylor Dance Company comes this weekend, because ''Paul Taylor is a genius, and one produces him whenever one can,'' Liz Thompson says. Maria Benitez Estampa Flamenca, a Spanish dance company, will uphold the St. Denis-Shawn affection for ethnic dance Sept. 2-5.
Ballroom dancing has been in eclipse since the '60s in America, Peter Maxwell , one of the dancers, pointed out. And Walter Terry furnished a historic justification for it.''Denishawn wouldn't have existed if Ruth St. Denis's managers hadn't said in 1914, 'You've got to get away from the goddesses (her chorus of female dancers) and do ballroom.'' She auditioned for a partner, and that is how she found Ted Shawn. They soon left ballroom behind, Mr. Terry recalled, and went back to gods and goddesses. The rest is history.