The prime wonder of the National College Dance Festival, which presented the first of two performances at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater last night, is that it is actually happening -- that college-level dance in this country has achieved an extent and quality deserving of celebration and display. To a degree, perhaps, it's a ripple-effect phenomenon: The decade's dance boom at the opera house level has helped spur exponential growth in other domains. But the ripple may well have started at the other end; were it not for the key role our colleges played as an incubator for dance in the century's earlier decades, the foot soldiers of today's dance millions -- the dancers, educators, and audiences -- might never have materialized.

Last night's program offered nine works chosen by nationwide audition. The levels of performance, production and compositional craft seemed indisputably high. It's hard to know exactly how reprsentative of the national picture these selections may be, but in any case, as in the early years of the American College Theatre Festival, the prevailing tone was conservative by the standards of contemporary dance. Some statistics for the record: The geographical spread was fairly even -- three works came from institutions in the East; three from the West, two from the Midwest, one from the South. Of the choreographers, about half of them faculty, half graduate students, seven were female. Minorities seemed to be feebly represented, and so was the avant-garde. From this program, you'd scarcely know there'd ever been a Judson Dance Theatre, much less the currently flourishing strains of post-modernism.

Among the most distinctive entries was "Cool Wave" by Lynn Lesniak of Connecticut College, who accepted Dancemagazine's $1,000 choreography scholarship last night. With the help of Lesniak's acerbic lighting, props and costumes, the piece is a sort of punkville nightmare -- three zombie couples in jerkily violent, obscene, but deadpan, encounters. It's not clear, though, whether the choreographer is satirizing, adoring or merely observing these mores. Equally impressive in its way was "A Shift in the Wind" by Temple University's Marlene Schmidt -- six dancers as an organic ensemble in an undulant ritual suggestive of Mary Wigman's expressionist universe.

Other less conventional contributions included the jestingly feminist "My Mother, Myself," by the University of Utah's Loabelle Mangelson; the oddball, virtuoso mimicry of "Circus," a solo by UCLA's Martha Kalman; the Tharp-like eccentricities of "Leave It on the Left," by Ohio State's Byron Richard; and "Monoecia," a gymnastic, unisex duet on the Pilobolus mold by the Boston Conservatory's Mary K. Wolff. The remaining, blander works -- "Afterglow," "Ritual/ Habitual," and "Atmospheres" -- were deftly structured, and, like their companion pieces, winningly danced.