The girls stood huddled in one corner of the steamy gym, their bare feet squeaking nervously on the wooden floor.

The instructor, s small woman with a harsh, rasping voice, barked commands, "Leap, don't hop! Travel! Wipe that smile off your face! Move!"

The group burst apart, its members immediately turning, twisting, attempting unknown ballet movements. Their faces were screwed up in concentration and their leotards clung tightly, too tightly to their bodies. It was hot and they wiggled uncomfortably in the new outfits.

Some tried to hide as they practiced, awkwardly mimicking the movements of others. But there was no hiding. The instructor called three girls out front and made them do the steps alone. Humiliation works.

Others gave up in the middle of the floor, returning to the corner with a disgusted groan.

The audition.

To many it is the ultimate test of ability and nerves, a personal confrontation between teacher and pupil.

And though even seasoned artists like to avoid it, the audition is a necessity to the arts faculty at Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts in Georgetown. It helps them determine which students should attend the specialized public school.

Previous training in dance, theater and visual arts is not required at Ellington, though in music it is preferred. But an audition is. They are rigorous and competition is stiff.

"During the three-day audition I study the students carefully, looking for the right kind of bodies that I can train to the dance," said Jimmy Thurston, dance director at Ellington. "A candidate's natural grace and his ability to catch on quickly are very important."

Robin Hopkins, 15, is one of the succesful ones. She passed the auditions two weeks ago and will be attending Duke Ellington in the fall.

Like the other nine girls accepted into the ballet program for this fall, she is not a typical student. Although she has not had formal ballet trainign, Robin has committed herself at a young age to a school where discipline is the motto.

But she is calm about her decision, confident about herself.

"I'm mature, more mature than my friends, I think," she said with quiet determination. "I know I can handle the discipline. I KNOW I can do it."

Her resolve will be tested by the pressures of school days that are long - 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. - and divided between academics and practice. Twice a year the students must pass an artistic examination. The drop-out rate is high.

"Are these kids too young to make such a decision? I don't know," said principal Israel Hicks. "But does anyone ever really make a decision? We show them the object of fine art, the craft and we require mor of them than other D.C. schools. They have to make it academically as well as artistically.

"We show them the craft but we cannot make them artists," he said. "Thy have to do that themselves."

Last year, 75 students were chosen in the summer for the ballet program. By the fall, only 48 students showed up for classes . . . 23 finished the school year.

And there will be pressures at school home, too.

Robin is the baby in a family of creative children: a singer, a pianist and another dancer. She has what is affectionately known as a "stage mother."

"Sure, I push them. I want at least one of them to make it like I never did," said her mother, Dorothy Hopkins. She was a singer as a girl, although her now scratchy voice belies once grand ambitions.

She even made a record with "Jap Currey and the Seven Blazers," but it never made it. Neither did she.

"I always wanted to do something creative, but you know, I went and got married to a sax player for his music," she said laughing. "Then the babies came and the music left."

Maybe, just maybe her daughter will make it. And Duke Ellington could be "the chance I never got," Mrs. Hopkins said.

In the three years since the old Western High School has been a school for the performing arts, it has had some "image problems," as Hicks readily admits.

There was a furor of sorts last summer over a modernistic statue of three nude figures on exhibit in the school's lobby. The artistic director, Mike Malone, resigned only to be reinstated two weeks later. He has now severed connections with the school, effective after his role as director of a summer theater group is completed.

And money for the school is scarce. "It takes three times as much money to run an arts school," Hicks said. "We can't reuse paint, canvas, or toe shoes!"

Finding artists who are qualified academically to teach high school is difficult. "If Picasso himself came here to teach we wouldn't be able to take him," Hicks said. "He doesn't even have 30 hours of education training, a masters, etc!"

The school is also fighting the attitude that art isn't really a vocation. At best, it is secondary.

"Whenever you have to cut back on funds arts are the first to go," he said. "We're just conditioned to subsidize science first."

The Hopkins family doesn't understand such attitudes.

"Not going to Duke was a big mistake for me," said sister CarolyN, 18, a dancer. "I didn't do as well as I should have at a regular school because it just wasn't my thing."

Robin's brother, John, graduated last year from Duke Ellington. He was a music major, specializing in piano.

"It's hard work for those kids, long hours, you know. And they complain all the time," Mrs. Hopkins said. "Why Buddy (John) would complain all night long about this teacher or that, and he'd be up like clockwork to go back to that school!"

Robin and her sister Carolyn smiled. They knew that if the clock hadn't worked, their mother would've been right there, shaking him awake.

"I sometimes think that, it wasn't meant for her to make it big," Carolyn said. "But for her to help us make it."