You're sitting there crunching your peanuts and drinking your beer and admiring Elvin Hayes' Ethiopian prince profile and Wes Unseld's IQ and Mitch Kupchak's calves, when what to your wondering eyes should appear, at half-time during the Bullets' opening game, but the Bullettes.

There they are, in their high-cut red hotpants and red wedgies, Farrah Fawcett manes tossing, dancing on the Capital Centre's basketball court to the tune of the "Bullets loaded with hustle" songs, smiling as though they were queens for a day.

But not quite kicking in sync. sort of looking over their shoulders at the next one to make sure they're not completely off the beat, maybe giggling a bit when Fudge City hits the fan.

Carmen Miranda they're not.

The first night, the crowd just sat there stunned and silent. The night of the second home game, there were scattered boos. "The general reaction of the crowd at the Suns' games," says a former high school cheerleader, "was that the Bullettes stink. They looked like a bunch of kids who stepped out of the audience."

"You want a guard's opinion?" volunteers a Capital Centre guard. "They need help."

The Bullettes' appeal is based on "sex," says a male fan. "But what the girls do is unrelated to basketball or sports. It doesn't fit. It could be a confusion of impulses. But I don't know if I'd be more enthusiastic if they were Dallas Cowgirls," he says, referring to the bouncing bionics who hustle football for the Dallas Cowboys. "Or," he adds, "if the Bullettes were better dancers."

"All I can say," says Bullette Tricia Pittarelli, "is that we're trying to get better. We're not out there trying to be super dancers. We're out there trying to encourage enthusiasm."

The eight Bullettes gathered in their locker room at the Capital Centre Friday night and the scene was right out of one of those old chorine-backstage movies - borrowed pantyhose, eyelash curlers, electric curlers, fingernail polish to match the uniforms, den mother Linda Roth instructing: "Make your hair fuller. Don't try to flatten it out . . ." The veteran dancer, caught between clothes, saying, "Close the door, willya? The peeker's not getting' any freebies tonight." And the ingenue chattering on about her friend who went to L.A. armed with a list of introductions by Georgetown disco entrepreneur Mike O'Harro and - ah, Lotus Land - she made it to a party at Olivia Newton-John's the very first night she was there and met all these movie stars . And then Bullette Rhonda Gore's mother helps Gore put her hair up in pincurls to get that Daisy Mae wave . . .


"It's been 20 years, man and boy, since most anybody screwed a pincurl into her head. There's a time warp here. Cheerleaders have gone through some changes, to be sure, from the rock and roll boppers of the early '70s, to sex-integrated squads (every year some waggish undergraduate gets himself elected Homecoming Queen), to shall-we-say careworn squads like the Redskinnettes, so it's not as though the Revolution had any impact on this irrepressible species of American boosterism, but . . .

What happened to the cheerleader of yore, the ingenue who starred opposite Gordon MacRae in musicals? Their cheers are declasse, no to mention their bulky sweaters, saddle-shoes and little white gloves.

"They went out," says Wes Unseld, "with the old-fashioned kind of basket-players that go rah-rah and pat each other on the heinie."

"We are in the entertainment business," says Bullets coach Dick Motta, "We're competing for the entertainment dollar and anything that attracts the first-rate customer is good for us."

"There's no way a National Basketball Assn. crowd would follow a cheer," says Bullets PR man Charlie Williams. "Basically because you've got business people with clients in the stands. It's just not a rowdy crowd."

Basketball is trying to cop some of the publicity garnered by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, upon whom grateful television cameras linger during nationally televised football games, and who virtually became Dallas' ambassadors to all you Northeast Corridor slickers, recently, on the cover of Esquire magazine. Their disco dancing, skimpy costumes and sultry looks have become the prototype of the new cheerleader.

Get into those hotpants. Flex those pecs. Smile. and a one, and a two, and a three . . . kick! Kick? Well . . . let's try it again . . . together this time . . .

Otherwise impervious men have been known to swoon over the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and - even though the Bullettes got a picture of themselves in Newsweek a week ago - they can't compare to their sisters in Dallas. "There's something classier about the Cowgirls," says a man fan. "Something fresh and unspoiled-looking about them."

"Chacun ," you might sniff, "a son bellybutton, " and point out that the Dallas Cheerleaders look about as wholesome as Tijuana tacos, but they do have their female fans. "They're knockouts," says one. "They're so attractive and professional that the men in the audience don't think about getting back to their football."

Maybe professionalism is the key. Maybe that's why a feminist or two has complained about the Bullettes. One feminist fan says, "I just don't see the point of them. All they do is, wag their behinds. I think it's more a matter of taste than feminism - although I could quibble with them on those grounds. It's just going below the dignity of what people go to sports events for." Other fans have complained to Bullets management that the Bullettes' costumes are "a disgrace."

"We didn't want to portray an image that was in any way sexist," say Bullette Pittarelli, a State Department secretary who models furs for Gartenhaus. "We're there to get up enthusiasm from the crowd. But you can't get away from the fact that we're females."

Of course not. PR man Williams lists the credentials for becoming a Bullette: The women were to be polite, "able to dance a little, have attractive bodies" and, above all, not be basketball groupies. "In talking to them," says Williams, "we tried to determine that their main objective was dancing, or performing in front of people."

Most of the women were recruited by Linda Roth, a freelance PR woman who works for Tramps' Mike O'Harro and who is under contract with the Bullets on the cheerleaders' project.

She wasn't really looking for walking almanacs of basketball lore. They're hard to find at Central Casting. Only Terri Elam, 21, who bartends part-time, teaches occasionally at a health spa and works at a Northern Virginia bank, confesses to some slight acquaintance with baskets and dribbling and the like. "I played basketball in high school," she says, "but then I got interested in boys and dropped it."

Roth called Central Casting and local modeling agencies and friends. Elam had taught Roth's exercise class. Two other Bullettes were, in fact, regulars at Tramps. Twenty women auditioned at Tramps for Roth. Williams and Mike Minnig, general manager of the local Stroh's beer distributorship. Stroh's pays the Bullettes $15 for each performance, and the Bullettes' uniforms have Stroh's emblazoned on the back. The idea for the Bullettes came up in Capital Centre staff meetings, Williams said, late in September. The Bullets had old fashioned cheerleaders briefly - very briefly - a few seasons back. But this time, Williams said, "We're trying to be a little but more creative."

Creatively, the women rehearse, one, two, three times a week, with all the intensity of a member of the Chorus Line." "I was in seventh heaven when I saw that play," says Rhonda Gore. "Applause, that's the minute they live for." At one rehearsal last week at Tramps, men wandered in from the adjoining bar to watch the women watch themselves in the miror. They practiced their routine with the small smiles of beauties, of physical culturists, of people who do exercises to build up their calves every day, of people who like what they see. They gossip about the photograph of themselves in Newsweek - 'My mother tried to convince me my foot was in there, but it wasn't - and they have small, unexpressed jealousies for dancer Pam Walter, 23, the one Bullette whose face did show in the picture. "Yes, I think they're jealous," says Walters. "Wouldn't you be? It wasn't my fault, I wish they'd picked a picture with all of us in it. "It's a good group."

Not good enough, alas.

What's a starry-eyed young model to do? Washington isn't exactly the toddlingest town for models, you know, and they, the Bullettes, have hopes - such hopes, the hopes of pretty young women, beauty contest runners-up, living at home, or in places like Crofton, Md., working as secretaries, pharmaceutical assistants, loan processing officers . . .

"I want," say Gail Gray, 23, a pharmacist's technician in Lanham, "to wind up in New York with my face on the cover of Cosmo."

"It's a bit of notoriety," says Tricia Pittarelli."You meet people in the entertainment world, get ahead modeling."

"In the long run," says Rhonda Gore, who is saving her modeling money to go to George Mason College in January, "I'd like to be a topname model like Farrah Fawcett. She was a top-name model and she got a TV show of her own. It's a long shot," says Gore, "but you've got to shoot for something."

"I'm a dancer," says Lynn Freyman, 20, who runs a fashion show coordination business in Baltimore. 'I want to choreograph dance lines in the movies. Ann-Margret, she's been my idol since I was a tiny little girl. New York? No. Hollywood is Hollywood."