They came in wrist corsages and white-on-white tuxes, in swirls of chiffon, in shoes that squeaked, in Caddies and jalopies and grins like neon. The quarterback of the football team was there, and so was the class clown; the captain of the cheerleaders and the kid who aced auto mec. It was the senior prom of Northwood High in Silver Spring last weekend. They held it in the Sheraton Park Hotel and 400 showed up.

All of them were acting out an American ritual, even if no one thought of it this way. Girls blew smoke from expensive cigarettes and talked like faye Dunaway; boys with their shirts out ganged in the hallways and talked tough. You could have blinked and sworn this was Fort Wayne, or maybe lowa City, 1953.

The theme was "Everybody Has a Dream," and of course everybody did. Near the end of the night, somebody with his coat off and his tie on crooked got up on stage to sing "Everybody Has a Dream," which is a song by Billy Joel. He sang it while 200 couples, salty with tears and perspiration, moved in minute circles.

When it was over and the place was a bright glaze of littered tables, they scattered for the beach, or bowling, or all-night breakfasts. Some had to work the next day, at Big Boy and K-Mart, and said they couldn't care less. This was, after all, the last rite of high school, their final, sanctioned freeze-frame of innocence.

CLEAN. He's got a top hat that doesn't fit very well, a white cane, a coat with tails. The cummerbund is velvet. The limo, alas, already went back.

"I had it for four hours," says Tom Murray, twiddling the cane. "The thing had a TV, stereo, bar and air-conditioning. I got in there and turned on everything at once. It was something. It cost me $90. I had my parents call up this week and get it for me."

The chauffeur picked him up outside his house at 6:20. That, in itself, was a trip. "My parents, my aunt and uncle, my sister's friends, my brother's friends-everybody was out there waiting for me to climb in. Then we went over to get my date. Then we went to the Sans SouCEES for dinner."

It was beautiful.

"I bet we had five waiters," says Kathy Adams. She is Murray's date. She goes to Springbrook High. She's in a pale blue dress and rolls of dark hair. She has been gazing idly about the floor and has come awake to toss this in. She is puffing on a cigarette with great sophistication.

"I guess I just wanted to show everybody up," Murray says, trying to say why he went to all this expense, which has about busted his savings from his part-time job at a country club. "I mean, you only have one senior prom. I figured I might as well blow it out. You know?"

And how will he get around the rest of the night, now that the limo has gone on the lam? "Oh, my dad and brother drove down our Nova and parked it outside the hotel."

A nova after a chauffered limo?

"Well, it's a new Nova."

At 8:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the prom officially begins, Dusty Dusterhoff and his wife Fran are checking off names from a yellow legal pad. They sit at a table outside the ballroom; inside, "Free Spirit," and eight-piece disco-rock band with coordinated suits and trombones, is setting up, Red-coated waiters lay out "domestic and imported cheeses, presented on mirrors."

Dusterhoff is a Northwood guidance counselor, the prom's official sponsor. He says a little over 200 tickets were sold, out of a class 457, and that each ticket cost $32 or $37, depending on whether you paid your class dues. A tux is an easy $50. And then there's dinner. "You either subscribe to the whole ritual, or you don't," says Dusterhoff. "We've got more this year than last, and more last year than the year before. It's almost as if I vicariously get Geritol from watching this thing unfold."

Only thing, there isn't much unfolding just now A few couples have drifted toward the door-and backed out. It's like an empty church in there. There's a lot of browsing at the newsstand.

Steve Piper, a sophomore, and Julie Rutland, a senior, are waiting out in the lobby on a love seat. They are anything but mushy. Piper, who looks poured into his cat-gray tux, sits with one leg crossed on the other. He pulls at his sock. The leg wags furiously.

"Uh, she asked me," he says. Then, sans apparent transition: "We had a garage sale today. For our church. St. Luke's Lutheran in Silver Spring." He rubs a finger inside his collar, wipes his palms on his pants.

Why did he consent to come? he is asked.

"I guess for memory's sake."

Picture time. Like the American cowboy posing in a St. Looey photo parlor, or Grant at Appomattox. Each nervously giggling couple waits its turn on the mezzanine to stand before a canvas backdrop painted in full technicolor splendor. The scene is a garden. It is lit with an umbrella klieg light.

The boy's left hand rests stiffly on the girl's left arm; his right arm chastely encircles her waist. She glistens her lips; he knocks back his hair. The girls who are too tall for posterity stand in their bare feet. The boys do everything they can to pull themselves up to full height. "Hold it right there," says a man in a polka-dot tie and a three-piece suit with piping. He is standing behind a tripod. "Got it." Two bodies slump.

Don Armstrong, originally from Charlotte, and his wife Karen, are the providers of these dreams. The Armstrongs have hit tonight's prom, as they hit several thousand over the last 15 years, to press memories, flat and fine, onto small pieces of paper. It's a going free-lance business they have, though there was a time a few years back when it looked as if they would have to hunt up other work. "Proms are really back now," Armstrong says, barely containing his joy.

You can select Package A, B, C, D or E. Package A, which costs $18, gives you a variety of full-color shots. Package E, which goes for$5, is your basic quickie memory. Armstrong has his various packages on display around him-a Fuller Brush man with a camera. The biggest seller tonight is Package E.

Debra Shapiro and her date, Mark Mitchell, have just bought Package E. Debra goes to the University of Maryland; Mitchell is a senior. They worked at Sears over the Summer last year. He asked her to the prom a few weeks ago.

After their picture is taken, Mark poses for another with three of his pals from Northwood. The four stand there, hulking before the trellis. It suddenly looks very comical. "My mother'll kill me," one of them says.

Mickey Mallory was quarterback of the football team this year. It wasn't such a hot team, actually: They won the first four games, lost the next six. "We got hit hard by injuries," he says. Mallory is smooth, articulate, black and wiry. He's going to Florida State in the fall. He thinks he knows why he came tonight.

"I probably would have been upset in a minor way for the rest of my life if I hadn't come," he says. "It's just another dance, really, but it's wrapped in a lot of emotion. That's why it's special."

A lot of firsts here for him tonight, he says. "First time I ever ate in a classy restaurant with a date. First time I ever ordered a drink at a bar. First time I ever wore a tux like this." His tux costs $60. It's maroon with a pink, ruffled shirt. Clean.

He and his date, Donna, ate at the Prime Rib on Wisconsin Avenue. "I didn't even want to eat it. I just wanted to look at it for a while." Before dinner they went into the bar and ordered. "I psyched myself up. I said, 'Mickey, you've got to go in there and be confident.' It was no sweat. Heck, we had wine for dinner and we didn't even finish it."

Mallory pulls close. "Look, I don't really say these kind of things very often. But we have a very apathetic class. Everybody knows it. And yet tonight, out there on that floor, we all came together.Print that, okay?"

12:15 a.m. Free Spirit is blasting a tune called "Freak Out." All the fashionable latecomers are here now. The place is packed. Also loose. Up on the balcony, a couple who has had a terrific row, is just making up. He wipes at her tears. Pins her lightly against a wall and kisses her. They go back downstairs arm in arm.

At a table near the dance floor, Donna Messersmith, secretary of the senior class, sits with her boyfriend Doug Hoffman. Hoffman is a senior at Einstein. When you ask Donna, who is also a track star, when she asked Doug to the dance, she says immediately: "On April 22. A Sunday." Two weeks from now, the two of them will do this all over again, at his prom. That'll be held at Columbia Country Club.

Earlier in the day, Donna had a district meet. She ran the two-mile relay and the two-mile run. She did the two-mile in 12:04.2, her best time ever. "But I had to block tonight out," she says. "It about killed me. I sat in the middle of the field and put the hood of my sweatshirt over my head."

The meet was over about 3:45. She drove eight other kids home, then raced to her house, hopped in the shower, did her hair, got dressed, put on the wrist corsage Hoffman specially picked out for her earlier in the week at Mason's Florist off Georgia Avenue.

"Next year, I'm going to the University of Maryland on a Chancellor scholarship," Donna Messersmith says. "I figure this is good send-off."

As in the old days, prom tension builds all during prom week. "It's fun, just being around this week, hearing the talk in the halls," says Mark Mann, the vice principal. Mann graduated from high school, in San Diego, in 1963. "It's all instant replay. The pendulum has swung back."

Last year, nine seniors almost didn't make it to Northwood's prom. They were caught putting spray paint on the outside of the school the day before the dance. Some now say of this story, which has taken on th aura of folklore, that the boys were drinking; others say they were just feeling prom-week oats. Whatever, they were caught. Bob Mullis, Northwood's gregarious, soft-talking principal (he's from Georgia), put them to work hand-scrubbing away their prank. Afterward he got all nine in a room and let the tension build about whether they would get to go to the prom. Actually, he intended to let them go all along.

"Here's the picture," Mullis says, unable to hold a laugh. "You got nine scared-stiff boys sitting guilty in a room. And outside, through an open window, there are their would-be dates, trying to overhear the verdict. All you could see were these nine bobbing heads."

Sam King is the class of '79's self appointed Peck's bad boy. Once in the cafeteria, they say he skillfully reenacted the John Belushi eating scene from "Animal House." Another time he reputedly spit up for the edification of all around him a mouthful of hot mustard. He thought it was salad dressing, he says. "How did I know it was hot."

He is in fine form tonight-a great bellowing buck in tails and a white carnation. His date, Donna, from Riverdale, looks ready for the worst. Near midnight, King goes over and suddenly kisses on the lips one of Northwood's typing teachers, who has come as a chaperone. She takes the unexpected buss in great style. She might even love it. "That boy," she says, collapsing. "He near to broke my leg when he pulled me off a donkey during donkey basketball."

King says he stopped at a liquor store on his way to the prom. He bought champagne, downed some of it out in the car, sneaked in the rest under his coat. At least, this is what he says. "Mr. Dusterhoff didn't even notice. He was happy to get rid of me. He said, 'Go on, Sam, go on.'"

Yet even Sam King, the class clown who once cut off the heads of dead cats in biology class and then showed off his handiwork to the nearest girls, grows soft-almost sentimental-when he tries to say what this night means.

"You see these tails" he says, grabing one of them in his fist. "I had them on by 5 o'clock this afternoon. Look, when you pay $45 for tails, you don't want to take them off right away. I think I may sleep in them. In fact, I might wear them all weekend."

Sam King moves lightly forward, little beads of sweat on his upper lip. His hair has gone wild.

"It was worth waiting those four years just for tonight," he says. "But don't tell anybody.

On stage, the band is blasting. Something about dreams. CAPTION: Picture 1, Donna Messersmith and Doug Hoffman, by Fred Sweets-The Washington Post; Picture 2, The scene at the prom; by Fred Sweets-The Washington Post