They came to dance in sneakers and bare feet, stiletto heels and ballet shoes for the ultimate audition, a chance to be in "A Chorus Line."

They were not, of course, unaware of the irony, that the Broadway smash now at the National Theater is itself the story of a tryout, limning the lives on the line and the anguish of audtions.

"Today's audition is all about rejection," said assistant stage manager Eric Horenstein. "But that's what the show is all about."

"It's just like the show," murmured many of the 200 hopefuls. Some admitted they were not serious contenders, but were "too curious" to stay away. a

For five nervous hours, they stretched and flexed in a rainbow of regalia all over the mezzanine, vocalized in the bathrooms, bit their nails, hugged their friends, and held their breaths to see who, if anyone, "would make it."

"Look at all the people. How many people does he need . . . How many girls . . . How many boys?"

"The hardest part was coming in and seeing all the other people," confessed 20-year-old Catholic University student Michael Steuber, one of the four finalists. "It makes you feel like a number."

"Oh, God, I hope I get it. I've got to get this job."

"Emotionally, it's the pits," sighed audition veteran, New Yorker Maggie Chase, 26, who has been on her own for 10 years and auditioned for her first show at 17.

"You could fall on your ass -- just doing the double turn and the time step for the first cut, and it would all be over."

It was her turn to step out, give her name and age and do the double pirouette and time step.

She stepped back. The big casting director from New York had just flown in.

"Haven't you done something to your hair?" he asked.

Maggie beamed. "Yes, it was more 'butch,' like yours."

"Aren't you from Las Vegas?"

"I was working out there."

He remembered her!

"I think he likes me."

"Every day in New York I go to an audition somewhere. I get up at 7 a.m., put on my makeup, vocalize and warm up and then go out and sit for hours, waiting to be called in. It's very depressing . . . always counting your pennies, staying with friends.

"I worked for this. I've been in training, making myself fast . . . no cigarettes, no alcohol, no starch, and I even went to church last Sunday for the first time in 10 years.

"I knew I was okay when the pirouette was clean. Sometimes that double turn and time step are so hard. I mean, you just walk out there, out of context . . . "

Maggie came to Washington especially for the audition "because in New York, there would be 600-700 people up there."

It paid off. She's a survivor from Wednesday's tryout.

Some 600 dancers already have appeared in "A Chorus Line" since its 1975 opening on Broadway. Auditions are held monthly in New York and regularly on the road to feed the three domestic companies (one Broadway, two road) and the international shows.

"We don't hold auditions for PR. It's not a hype," said assistant stage manager Horenstein. "We are looking for talent. We always need the people."

Adds New York casting director Joe Nelson, "We try to hire who they are, type-casting, rather than trying to make actresses or actors out of these dancers. That's why we talk with them on stage. They lose their cover, their guard, and we can see how they speak."

Finalist 24-year-old Deborah Sidbury, a Busch Gardens performer who has "danced all my life," almost didn't get to audition at all.

"I got up at 5:30 this morning, woke up my neighbor at 7 to borrow a typewriter to bang out my resume and I still had to go borrow a car and pick up my dancing shoes before I could drive 3 1/2 hours from Williamsburg. And then I got lost in Washington and arrived after the auditions were over for the girls."

Luckily, Horenstein, 30, a dancer in the show himself, was touched by her saga and let her try out with "the boys."

"I was more nervous than ever in my life," said Sidbury.

Another finalist, 25-year-old David Holmes Jr. of New Jersey, just happened to read about the open auditions in the newspaper while visiting friends here.

"It always surprises me to come close, or to get it," he said. "You can't get upset; it's the business."

"God, I really blew it."

D.C. Dance teacher Joyce Mattison, 27, fought back tears after her muffed pirouette, but she was philosophical after 20 years' dancing experience. m"I'll get over it . . . I've been to 1,000 auditions, and this will make me work harder next week."

Three other area hopefuls had to laugh over their fling with fantasy.

"At the beginning of the show, there are some people who mess up. I could do that just fine," cracked 30-year-old Melanie Brown of Chevy Chase.

Betty Spriggs, 22, of the District, wished she could have auditioned the night before. "When I had a friend there, teaching me a pirouette; I'd never done one in my life before."

D.C. dancer Deborah Leopere, 27, who has taken dance for only two years came "just for the sport of it . . . Our line was a mess, we're the rememdial group."

"I could do that."

After only two years' dancing, 19-year-old Mike Giacchino of Silver Spring was delighted over making it through the first cut.

"I've started real late for a dancer, but I have natural talent and I'm going to make it some day."

Robert Joyce, 17, Columbia, Md., had to fib on his blue audition card just to get on stage (stated age limit is 18-32), but figures since he made it through two cuts, "I can do that."

"Eventually, I can make it," said 24-year-old Nina Werness, an American University graduate dance student. "After all, I only got four hours sleep last night finishing my thesis."

"Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?"

One of the most experienced dancers there, 28-year-old Anne McDonald of McLean wondered why she didn't make it. "But that's what 'Chorus Line' is all about."

"I think he likes me, I know he likes me."

"The maid told me upstairs in the bathroom that they liked my looks," confided dance teacher Maureen Ribble, an area dinner-theater favorite.

The dark, curly-haired Alexandria mother of a 12- and 14-year-old (who admits to "pushing 36") slipped right into Sheila's role in "A Chorus Line" as the older but wiser woman who talks back to the casting director.

"I'm 32," winked Ribble, asking casting director Joe Nelson to "keep it a secret."

Nelson: "Your secret is as safe with us as it was with you."

It could have come straight out of the script.

"All I ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance to dance for you."

"They say I have all the equipment, a great body, and the moves, and when someone from New York says you're good, you can make it," gushed Rise Pirnat, an Alexandria high-school senior with "almost an 'A' average."

She had danced her heart out all morning and made it through three cuts. But when it came to singing "T and A" (those who have seen the show can fill in the blanks), she was obviously embarrassed.

The casting director told her to come back when she's older.

Rise, undaunted: "I'm going full-steam ahead now for show business."

"Point me to tomorrow . . . I won't regret what I did for love."

Stage left, next to the piano, there's Maggie, the quintessential chorus-line gypsy. All alone now in her ratty old dance shoes, her old brown raincoat hanging over her shoulders, and so soaked, her hair sticks to her forehead. Time for her to sing.

"Please God, I need this job."

(Italic lines from "A Chorus Line.)