I WAS A CLOSET John Travolta. All the tell-tale symptoms of a chronic case of "Saturday Night Fever" were there. By now, they're familiar to everyone: recurrent attacks of "happy feet"; a booty not adverse to shaking; a marked affinity for silk shirts. I had seen "Saturday Night Fever" so many times, you could tell by the way I used my walk, I was a woman's man, no time to talk.

No question about it. It was time to come out of the closet and learn how to hit the dance floor with style and expertise.

And that meant (shudder!) disco dance lessons. The mere thought of dance lessons conjured up long-repressed childhood fears of a time when dancing was for sissies and dancing school meant seemingly interminable nights of indentured humiliation. Forced into stiff white shirts, skinny fake neckties, sweltering wool suits and scuffed penny loafers, myself and my elementary school companions shuffled aimlessly around the school cafeteria, trapped in the arms of sweating, amorous, plaid-skirted grammar school Amazons, while our sadistic parents watched proudly. After repeated and prolonged exposure to dangerous levels of cooties and ridicule, the dance school ordeal finally ended, never to be repeated in my lifetime.

Or so I thought.

What would these disco dance lessons involve? Would my instructor be an incarnation of my most lurid apprehensions, an authoritarian matron with arms the size of my thighs and a martinet's riding crop?

Would I be made an example of? Would I be sternly corrected in front of the class? Would I . . .? Would I . . .? The possibilities were unlimited, and all unpleasant.

Nevertheless, I put on my best Travolta smirk and swagger, and gamely mounted the poorly lit stairs that led to the small dance studio one floor above Connecticut Avenue. To bolster my confidence, I recalled the scene in "Saturday Night Fever" where Travolta, the Bayridge Baryshnikov, was holding court at the "2001" disco. A sultry brunette sidled over to him and asked, almost rhetorically, "Are you as good in bed as you are on the dance floor?" Travolta rose wordlessly, glanced once at his envious buddies and took to the dance floor with the supreme self-assurance that is his trade mark.

Right at that moment I was opening the studio door. The soothing strains of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" filled the mirrored studio where seven or eight couples and their instructors executed and re-executed the steps and turns of the New York and Latin Hustle. Ranged casually around the wooden floor were other students, waiting with encouraging nonchalance of their half-hour in the limelight. In the corner, an effervescent Latin woman patiently drilled a middle-aged black couple on the correct timing for a multiple turn. At center stage a small elderly woman whirled effortlessly in the arms of a handsome young instructor while her graying husband watched carefully.

By the window, an attractive young woman gamely looked on as a willowy blonde teacher counted off the steps for her attentive partner. The pulsing beat of "Night Fever" had just begun.

From the adjoining room the staccato racket of the tap dance class was audible as I surveyed the classroom, searching anxiously for beefy Bavarian women or men of questionable sexual leanings with whom it might be my miserable fate to dance. I saw none. Everyone appeared to be having a grand time. They were serious about their dancing and the competent, encouraging instructors seemed to have allayed all fears, real or imagined.

I had almost convinced myself that this was a worthwhile endeavor when, from behind me, I heard a soft Southern voice ask, "Are you ready to try it yourself?"

Immediately I knew I should have used an industrial-strength deodorant. My trembling hands were awash. I turned to meet my Dance Maker. She was gorgeous.

Her name was Diane. Her eyes were a captivating green. Her hair was fluffy blonde. She must have been in late 20s. She was about my height, and her voice was low and melodious.

I was in love.

She grasped my sweaty hands with a professional firmness, led me to the corner of the floor by the full-length mirrors and lost no time in attempting to teach me the six-step rudiments of the New York hustle.

Initially I was stymied. "I'll bet it doesn't take most students so long to learn the basics," I whimpered, fishing for encouragement.

"Most people wish they could learn as fast as you do," she replied, taking the bait.

And so it went, to the end of the first half-hour and on into the next week's lesson, Diane being so patient and me being so utterly inept. "Tap, tap, tap," she would say evenly as I tried to whip my incorrigible feet into line. "Don't watch your feet," she admonished gently when I blundered into another couple. "You're putting in an extra step," she reminded as I bounced when I should have shuffled. "Those six steps have to become as natural as riding a bicycle," she explained over and over. "You can't go anywhere without them."

Did Travolta really start out this way?

As the third and final lesson of the introductory package approached, I found myself frustrated by my persistent inability to master even the simplest steps. I had nearly worn out the grooves in my "Saturday Night Fever" album and had made mortal enemies of my roommates. My friend's dog was unwilling to practice any more turns or steps with me, and I found practicing with a hat stand unful-filling. My boot had all but lost its will to shake.

The last lesson was devoted to the Latin hustle, quicker and even more bewildering than the New York hustle.

"You want to keep your shoulders level," Diane whispered. I protested that many Latin "hustlers" I had seen appeared to be doing no particular steps.

"You'll see them doing steps if you watch closely," she replied calmly. "Everyone does the latin hustle in Washington, so you have to know the steps." Noting my growing discouragement, Diane added, "You really have to dance with your girl about 100 times before you're both on the same beat all the time." I muttered that it would probably take me more like 200 times. My confidence and incentive were all but exhausted

In the end, I reluctantly declined Diane's offer of more lessons, and I now stalk the discos of downtown Washington alone, in my silk shirts, pocketless body-hugger slacks and platform shoes, watching silently from the shadows (the way Travolta did in preparation for the movie) and awaiting the dance to strut my stuff on the polished dance floors. Coupling what little I learned at the dance school with a festering case of "Night Fever," I've been able to stay alive in Washington's "disco inferno" and encounter romance and adventure in the process.

DISCO DANCE SCHOOLS

THE DANCE FACTORY - Monroe Street and N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington 527-4400. Weekdays 1 to 10, Saturdays 10 to 5. Private lessons - first three lessons, $10 an hour. Group lessons - four half-hour lessons, $18. Special packages available after introductory lessons.

A DANCE STUDIO - 109 Park Ave., Falls Church 241-1874. Weekdays 11 to 11. Private lessons - 10 half-hour lessons, $50. Special packages available after introductory lessons.

DANCE WORLD - 4630 Montgomery Ave., Betheeda, 656-1818. Weekdays to 10. Hustle, West Coast swing, cha cha: three private hours and three group hours, $10. Extra groups and practice parties available.Special packages available, $60 to 180.

VIC DAUMIT DANCE STUDIO - 3333 Connecticut Ave. NW. 362-6600. Weekdays 10 to 10, Saturdays 10 to 5, Sundays noon to 6. Private lessons - three half-hour sessions, two disco parties $30. Special packages available after introductory lessons.

DUSHOR DANCE CLUB - 7235 Wisconsin Ave., Betheeda. 656-7434. Weekdays 1 to 10. Private lessons - five hours, $50. Group lessons - five hours, $20. Special packages available after introductory lessons.

THE FLATHER AND THREE - 2433 N. Harrison St., Arlington. 538-4633. Weekdays 10 to 11, Saturdays 10 to 4, Sundays 11 to 8. Group lessons - four hours basic disco and hustle, $12; four hours advanced hustle and sling, $12. Special packages available after intoductory lessons. THE DISCOS

THE APPLE TREE

1220 19th St. NW. 223-3780.

AMBLNCE: California-style disco. Hardwood appointments, plush furniture, large plants. Crowd is well-dressed and predominantly white.

On week-

ends, quarters are to cramped for expressive dancing. Frogging, bumping and gyrating are dominant dance forms. DRINKS: Cocktails $1.75 to 3, wine $1.25 a glass, beer $1.45 to $1.75; $5 minimum Friday and Saturday. DRESS: Stylishly proper - shirts with collars for men, pantsuits or dresses for women. DANCE FLOOR: About 15' X 15' hardwood, bordered on two sides by full-length mirrors. MUSIC: White soul, some disco, oldies, slow numbers. Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Motown. SOUND SYSTEM: 175 watt-channel, two large amplifier-type floor speakers. HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 9 to 2, Friday and Saturday to 3. LA. CAFE

1214-B 18th St. NW. 659-1337.

AMBLANCE: Incomplete California decor, accented with mirrors, wood appointments, rattan chairs and palm trees. Lighting system includes rotating mirror ball/airplane lights and spot-lights. One fair-size bar, dance areas are floor level. Crowd is stylish, 20- to 30-year-old professionals, with a large ethnic contingent. DRINKS: All $2.25. Cover/minimum $2.50 Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; $3 Wednesday (with live music); $5 Friday and Saturday. DRESS: Disco attire - dancing clothes. DANCE FLOOR: Two hardwood floors, 25' X 35' and 30' X 40'. MUSIC: New York disco, dancing music, no slow numbers. Live music has a Latin accent. SOUND SYSTEM: Two JBL. Studio Monitor speakers on main dance floor. Speakers in all other areas. 1600 watts total power. HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 9 to 2, Friday and Saturday to 3. THE PLUM

1119 21st. ST. NW. 466-2616.

AMBLANCE: Eye-catching Spanish grotto exterior, spacious multilevel interior with mirrors, leatherette booths and two bars. Crowd is 20 to 30, white, well-dressed and suburban. Dancing is expressive, technique is emphasized and the Latin hustle is king. DRINKS: $1.95 to $2.75, $3 cover Friday and Saturday. DRESS CODE: Casually proper. Shirts with collars for men, pantsuits or dresses for women. DANCE FLOOR: 18' X 24' hardwood, slightly elevated. MUSIC: Latest disco, "Last Dance" by Donna Summer, "Copacabana" by Larry Manilow, "Thank God It's Friday" album. Little or no "Saturday Night Fever." SOUND SYSTEM: Approximately 3000 watts total. (Claimed to be the largest in the city). Eight Altec speakers and a computer-coordinated Alumineva lighting system. HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 2, Friday and Saturday to 3. SAZERAC

Canal Square (Port of Georgetown). 338-6601.

AMBLANCE: Nautical design with ropes, ship's wheels and wood railings. Crowd is young, predominantly suburban students, neatly dressed and well-behaved. Some disco dancing, bumping and Motown shaking. "Saturday Night Fever" is still a favorite. DRINKS: Cocktails $2 to $2.50, beer $1 to $1.75. No cover or minimum. DRESS: Casually proper. Shirts with collars for men, pantsuits or dresses for women. DANCE FLOORS: Two hardwood floors, 9' X 15' and 9' X 20'. MUSIC: The "hits" (1955 to 1978), New York disco, "Saturday Night Fever", Motown. SOUND SYSTEM: 400 watts per channel power amplifiers and four Bose 501 speakers. HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 9 to 1:30, Friday and Saturday to 2:30. TIFFANE

2015 L ST. NW. 833-5595.

AMBLANCE: African decor, wood appointmets, dark booths and tables, rattan chairs and a defunct jukebox. Two bars and a coordinated lighting system. Crowd is 20 to 30, predominantly black professionals, stylish dressed. Dancing is effortless and evocative, technique is de-emphasized. The unorthodox "freak hustle" is a favorite. DRINKS: $1.75 to $3.50. Sunday through Thursday $3 cover, $5 Friday and Saturday. DRESS: Properly dapper. Coats and dress shirts for men, fashionable dresses and pantsuits for women. DANCE FLOOR: About 12' X 16' hardwood, slightly elevated. MUSIC: New Yok disco, "Thank God It's Friday" album. No "Saturday Night Fever." SOUND SYSTEM: Six Bose 901 speakers and power amplifiers, approximately 250 watts/channel. HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 8 to 2, Friday and Saturday to 3. TRAMPS

1238 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 333-2230.

AMBLANCE: Wood-panelled private library decor, with dimly-lit chandeliers and carpeting. Some plants and a fairly small bar. Crowd is an eclectic blend of well-dressed suburbanites, incognito tourists and the occasional luminary. Dance floor is crowded, but the dancing is spirited and often polished. DRINKS: $2.25 to $2.80. No cover/minimum. DRESS: Proper to semi-formal. Coats requested for men on Friday and Saturday. Shirts with collars for men, stylish dresses for women on all nights. DANCE FLOOR: 10' X 16' hardwood, floor-level. MUSIC: New York disco, "Saturday Night Fever," "Thank God It's Friday," and slower numbers. SOUND SYSTEM: 250 watts/channel power amplifiers. 750 watts total. HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 8 to 2, Friday and Saturday to 3.