Under a soft, bluish light, the 21 contestants in 21 identical silver dresses strained to meet the notes of "There's No Stopping Us Now." "They tapped, they turned, their voices trembled. Yet they didn't stop smiling.

Under their smiles they counted, they pranched, and they prayed, each hopeful that within three hours she would be named Miss Black Universe, D.C.

A few minutes earlier, backstage at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, there had been an awkward moment. The moment that comes just after the last strap is adjusted, the last lick of nail polish secure and the last variation of a smile practiced. The moment of nothing to do but wait. Brenda Campbell, who later would come in 1st runner-up, assembled a prayer circle. As she spoke, silver hems and shoes touched, brown hands squeezed a communal nervousness and she beseeched, "Let them go out on stage with a smile on their faces, Lord." The pageant started.

The Miss Black Universe D.C. Pageant, one of dozens of beauty and talent competitions held locally, yet the only exclusively black pageant that is part of an international competition, had its debut over the weekend.

The long weeks of rehearsal and grooming programs were the first step toward the Miss Black Universe beauty pageant title. This new international pageant was organized after last year's Miss Universe title went to South African model who candidly spoke of her support of her country's system of legal segregation, apartheid. Though the previous winner had been a black woman from Trinidad-Tobago, the South African's remarks caused real displeasure and concern among the black contentants.

"That was certainly an influence," says Ruth Turner, a beauty-and-model executive who organized the local pageant. "But more importantly we wanted to present black women on a higher level and bring about respect for all of our cultures." Turner, who directs Metro Productions, a nonprofit firm that works with youth, received her major financial support from Stroh's Brewery and Xerox Corp.

None of the controversial origins of the contest were discussed openly at the local pageant's finals on Saturday, and the political awareness of the contestants was not questioned.

Instead, the business of a beauty contest, the Broadwayesque routine, the bathing suit competition, the talent display, all borrowed from the white roots of the ritual, and aptly satirized in the movie "Smile" and all loudly disavowed by feminists in the last decade, went on as usual.

The band struck up Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," at the end of each talent sequence.

"A pageant is one of the quickest ways to enhance a career," says Cynthia Arnold, 22, a business student, model and veteran of three area contests. "Right now I'm living with my parents, trying to get a modeling career started. It's a curious age, I read a lot about becoming a woman. You're too old for daddy's lap, too young for full independence, just getting out of school and things. You are trying to decide what you want yourself to be."

In every pageant, there's the obligatory moment when that question of ambitions has to be answered. Thalia Goldsboro, 23, an assistant to White House aide Anne Wexler, said she'd like to be a mayor. Delores Simmons, 18, said working with handicapped children is her vocational goal. And when 26-year-old Barbara Edwards, an employe of USDA, was asked if she thought men would reject her authority, she gave a loud, ladylike, "no."

But the contest did afford to look at a group of young black women, ages 18 to 26, who as products of the 1970s, the decade of the deep breath of introspection, have largely put individuality above group causes. The oldest contestant was barely a teen-ager when the urban riots and surge of black cultural awareness turned the sociologist's mirror to the black community. These women could hardly be more different from their black counterparts of 12 years ago who turned homecoming contests and beauty pageants into stageshows of blackness.

Still, the young women attracted to the pageant do not fall into the most frequent pictures of black youth of the 1970s, the angry unemployed or the listless unmotivated. "Ten years ago the women stood only on a 'black and proud' approach," says Turner. "Now these women are proud, proud of education, their goals and using their internal drives to get ahead."

Like the times, the look and the outlook of the young black woman has changed.Where an Afro hairstyle in the 1960s was a badge of identification, the natural style is a matter of choice and the moment's fashion. On the stage Saturday night, only one traditional Afro style and two natural styles, cut in neck-length shags, were visible. Most of the hairstyles were short, curled and straightened.

Overall, the women, children of working parents and products of public schools, have chosen their role models from their families, friends and teachers. The public personalities that they admire include Diana Ross, almost everyone's favorite, model Beverley Johnson, singers Melba Moore and Nancy Wilson, actress Cicely Tyson and politicians Barbara Jordan and Yvonne Burke. While reading is not as popular as jogging, they do pay attention to self-improvement books, "The Magic of Thinking Big," supernatural books and black literature. They are churchgoers and write their own thoughts down in poems and short stories.

And pageants are fun, the first step to discovery for a show-business career, though some are enrolled in pharmacy, clinical psychology, engineering and business courses at school.

It was Cynthia Williams' turn to perform. Dressed in a brown leotard, covered by a white curtain-like tunic, she crawled around the stage, telling about her hometown of Gainesville, Fla. She spoke in poetic tones, then switched to abstract terms, then shouted. The personal intensity of her words was lost on some of the audience, who tittered. At the end Williams a pre-pharmacy student, stood tall and announced, "I've come a long way. And that is dedicated to the woman who helped me, my mother."

D'michele Berryman is perched on A PARK BENCH. She feels comfortable, sitting in this playground near her childhood home in Northeast Washington, comfortable enough to talk about the adolescent shyness she worked out with a paint brush, pen and ink.

But she hasn't quite worked out the pulled between acting and architectural engineering, her two main interests now. "I'd like to make people happy, through singing and acting. Does that sound awful? I really want to contribute something, especially to our race," says the 21-year-old Berryman. She is soft and sincere, her round face is enlivened by dancing eyes. She keeps her figure by weight lifting and jogging in metallic sweat pants.

"Well, singing is a diversified way of bringing everybody into your personality, your things," she said. Architectural engineering, which satisfies Berryman's "desire to know how things are put together," is simply right-now insurance.

One of Berryman's concerns as a campus leader at North Carolina A & T is the lack of commitment to broader political issues. "We have had rallies for the Wilimington 10 and the Joan Little case, as well as speakers like Nikki Giovanni and Dick Gregory, but the school's black awareness is slow.Apathy saddens me because it's a loss of so much potential of our people," she says.

The lives of people she admires -- her mother, who went to law school after a teaching career, Mayor Marion Barry, boxer Muhammad Ali, attorney Patricia Russel and entertainer Eartha Kitt -- have given her a reservoir of open-mindedness about race relations.

She speaks confidently of her own attitude. "At the Naval Ordinance Station in Indian Head, Md., where I am working for the summer, I am the only black female architect in my division. Though there are no special pressures on me as a black, I am aware it could be touchy. So I keep my mind open."

All week long she had driven the 90 mile round trip to and from work, had practiced her talent number, a song from "Porgy and Bess," and had practiced for a friend's wedding on Saturday."I know I can get it all done. I have to keep my mind clear," says Berryman, "I don't clutter myself with trying to be like other people, or do what they might do. I believe you can draw those qualities of those you admire into you but you have to add something of your own. Right now I am just into good things, because the good things show."

Gail Brent is a beauty pageant junkie. Her tropies have edged out the family portraits in her family's den. And, on Saturday night, Gail Brent, 22, went home with trophies Nos. 18 and 19, one of which was for 2nd runner-up.

"Honestly, pageants have just become fun. I always meet a lot of new friends, the exposure is good, and it gives my parents a chance to see me perform," says Brent, sitting in the living room of the modest brick home she grew up in Southeast. This slight woman with a short cap of bangs and dark hair pulled into a knot has reigned as the University of the District of Columbia's first homecoming queen, representing Washington at the Orange Bowl; Junior Miss Ebony, and recently she placed in the Miss Greater Montgomery County. When she is a senior home economics student at U.D.C., planning to teach and eventually operate a day-care center.

Her idol is Diana Ross but she chose for her talent presentation excerpts from the speeches of Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. about education. "They have struggled and their words have a lot of meaning for black people. And I enjoy weaving in my own thoughts, the values of my parents, honesty, loyalty and close family ties," says Brent. Her mother is a nurse at the Forest Haven Children's Center and her father a mechanic at the post office.

The applause was deafening when Brent, dressed in a choir robe, repeated the familiar slogans of Jackson and King. "Move over Jesse," someone screamed. There were yells of "teach" so loud Brent was drowned out. As she clutched her trophies, the second one for "most helpful contestant," she grinned, "This is my pageant philosophy: If you can't afford to lose, you can't afford to win."

It was almost the end of the talent competiion. And Kathy Merrick, 19, was giving Judith Jamison, the belle of black dancers, a run for her credits.

With a ladder as a prop and her partner, and the popular gospel song, "Going Up Yonder," as her background, Merrick did a series of strenuous twists and jumps that had the crowd standing. Once when the ladder slipped Merrick lost neither her confidence nor her smile.

And when the final winners were named, Merrick was among those top five.

And then she stood calmly, in a blue form-fitting gown, as she was named Miss Black Universe, D.C. She whispered her thanks. Crowded around her were her parents -- her father Hubert Merrick is an executive vice president of Independence Federal Bank -- her dance teacher Laverne Reed, and friends from Holy Name Academy and Howard, where she is a student.

She is a vivacious woman, whose look was distinguished by her lack of makeup and her shoulder length, naturally straight hair.

"I don't believe in trends or influences," she said. ""One of my joys is the forest, nature. And I believe in understanding and love, so my look comes from that and it's natural."

And then she pulled a black velvet cape around her, and, not bothering to wipe from her cheeks lipstick remnants of congratulatory kisses, she smiled. CAPTION: Picture 1, Miss Black Universe, D.C. Kathy Merrick; Picture 2, Carmen Ward, Merrick and Gail Brent, by Fred Sweets