A busload of American Ballet Theatre dancers from New York demonstrated for three hours yesterday afternoon in front of the Kennedy Center, dramatizing their demand for a "living wage" that has led the troupe's management to lock them out of scheduled rehearsals. Stalled contract negotiations between dancers and ABT are currently threatening the upcoming four-week ABT season at the Center, slated to start on Dec. 4.

Carrying signs like "We Would Rather Dance Than Walk, But We Have No Choice" and chanting such slogans as "Give us a chance, we wanna dance," some 16 dancers is costume and an equal number of supporters paraded up and down the Center's entrance roadway, alongside (fittingly enough) the statue of Don Quixote de la Mancha, one of classical ballet's traditional heroes.

The dancers -- the women mostly in tutus, toe shoes and leg warmers, the men in everything from a sailor suit to a velvet jerkin and tights -- passed out leaflets to the few strollers, but mostly to people in passing cars, taxis, buses and an occasional limousine. There were representatives of all the company ranks -- corps de ballet, soloists and one principal dancer, Kirk Peterson, who like others in the demonstration, danced for a number of years with Washington's own National Ballet. A brass ensemble from the Kennedy Center's Opera House orchestra played for the marchers for a while. Among the other supporters on hand were members of the local stagehands union, ticket sellers and National Symphony musicians.

After trudging the incline for dozens of round trips, one of the dancers was overheard to say, "This hill is not real easy."

Frank Smith, ABT soloist and spokesman for the protesters, stressed that the demonstration was an "informational picket" only, and was not aimed at the Kennedy Center in any way, but at the ABT management.

Martin Feinstein, the Center's director of opera and ballet, had asked that the dancers defer their Washington demonstration until after the Vienna Opera engagement, but withdrew the request after assurances that the picketing would last only till 4 p.m., and would make clear that the Center itself was not the target. Feinstein had no comment on the dancers' protest yesterday, but said, "I only hope the whole thing gets settled."