TRADIONALLY, life for most American ballet dancers has consisted of hard work, low wages and sacrifice. And traditionally they have accepted it, killing the present pain with dreams of future stardom and the money it might bring.

At American Ballet Theatre, however, dreams are no longer acceptable in lieu of what the dancers consider a decent wage -- not just enough for subsistence, but a little luxury as well.And economic issues are clearly at the heart of the continuing stalemate in contract negotiations which has kept the company inactive and forced the cancellation of its Kennedy Center booking.

But in retrospect, it appears that ABT's problems have been less the result of specific monetary problems than of a change in the dancers' self-image and personal philosophy.

Historically, a similar labor revolution came years ago to other branches of the performing arts, as the Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity and the American Federation of Musicians engaged in sometimes long and often bitter performers talented enough to be offered work would be well paid for their efforts.

Of course, that pattern is at work in the ABT controversy. But in conversations with many of ABT's dancers and with veteran ballet industry observers, it appears that two psychological issues have been equally influential in shaping the strife.

The first is a maturing process in which the dancers have realized that most of them will never achieve stardom and the big money. They are resigned to the long-term prospect of lives at corps de ballet and soloist salaries. These salaries currently do not allow for many luxuries and are generally inadequate to support families.

The second is the collapse of ABT's matriarchal society and "family" feeling -- largely because the company's co-founder and de facto ruler, Lucia Chase, has been pressured to resign, effective next September. Much of her power has already been assumed by others.

Alan Olsen, assistant executive secretary of the American Guild of Musical Artists -- the dancers' union -- believes that "there is a general awakening by dancers to the world around them." In the past, he said, the dancers were "so involved in dancing -- it's almost a religion -- that you could drop a bomb three blocks away and they'd hardly notice." But now, Olsen said, "Dancers will not be as subservient as they were in the past. It used to be like the old days of the Army -- you did what you were told."

Dr. Havery A. Kaplan, a well-known New York psychoanalyst who has treated many dancers and other performers, suggested that ABT's dancers "were forced to deny their economic assertiveness for the glory and glamor of the arts. Their salary was secondary because their art was primary.The opportunity to dance was considered to be a gift that God bestowed.

"Now nobody romanticizes it the way they used to. The dancers are narcissistic, but the issue of getting by economically has overcome that."

Kaplan added that "they no longer see themselves just as dancers, they see themselves as providers . Once that happens, they begin to feel exploited."

The candor of one dancer is typical: "Look, I know I'm not going to become a star with this company. In a few years, I won't even be here -- so all this stuff about more money in the future is baloney."

Frank Smith, an ABT soloist and spokesman for the dancers agreed: "We cannot live on dreams and breadline wages. Our dancers are not willing to starve on the chance that they'll become superstars. They may not have been aware of [the new feeling] before, but it is an accumulated circumstance."

Dr. Kaplan also noted that "the matriarchal structure of the company served to repress [the dancers'] economic assertiveness -- as long as Lucia Chase was there, she kept this assertiveness depressed. With Chase retiring, the dancers feel even more exploited because they identify with her as being abused."

"So it's like a family," Kaplan explained. "When the children lose the respect for the father, they become aggresive. The ballet company functions like a family -- that's why they've been held in place for so long."

One veteran male dancer put it this way: "Lucia was an institution. Yes, Iloved and hated her at the same time. But now she's leaving and I'm working for a bunch of rich board members and society people. Well, I don't care about them."

"At the end of each year," one ballerina explained, "Lucia used to call each of the dancers into her office and ask what you'd like to do next year. You'd say this role and that role and a promotion, and usually you wouldn't get most of what you wanted. She would go into her act that 'Oh, there's no money,'or "We're taking this ballet out of repertoire, so you can't do it,' or something like that.

"But at least you thought Lucia cared. This year, Lucia says one thing, and they [ABT officials]" say something else. "You don't know who is running the company."

According to Dr. Kaplan, ABT's management (which typically refers to the dancers as "the kids") "didn't understand the psychological functions of a family." The dancers' spokesman, Frank Smith, and their attorney, Leonard Leibowitz, agreed.

Joyce Moffat, the ABT's general manager, admitted that the departure of Chase has disturbed the dancers, and also confirmed that, from management's point of view, the dancers have matured in their attitude. But she argued that the salary inequities "can't all be corrected in one contract," and said that the dancers "are on what I could best describe as a crusade."

Under the newly expired contract, top scale for an ABT corps member with seven years experience was $383 per week. Starting salary for a new dancer was $215 a week, rising to $235 after four weeks. This season, the dancers were scheduled to have only 36 weeks of work.It was a painful situation, given the harsh economic realities of New York City, where inflation is having a devastating effect on the lower middle class -- a category into which many of the dancers fall.

The major question now is how the impasse will be resolved The dancers are believed ready to hold out all winter, if necessary. Management, coming off a financially unrewarding cross-country tour last season, may well be resigned to canceling the tour this season.

But the key to resolving the dispute, veteran observers suggest, is the Metropolitan Opera Association. Its executive director, Anthony A. Bliss, has warned that if there is no settlement soon, the Met will have to reconsider ABT's 10-week New York run, set to begin next May.

Without time to stage and rehearse ABT's announced new full-length production of "La Bayardere" (due to premiere next year in Washington) and other new repertoire, it is believed the Met would not want to risk a 10-week season. also, the Met would not be comfortable without its standard five months for advance marketing and promotion efforts -- due to begin in several weeks.

The spring Met engagement has been profitable to ABT, and crucial to the company's prestige. If ABT loses part or all of that season, the loss could jeopardize future, Met seasons and, in fact, the company's existence.

Union leader Olsen stated, "An agreement ultimately has to be reached or the company will dissolve."

Whatever, happens, dancers all across America are watching. And the dance world may never be the same.