Dancing in identical strapless dressed of gold lame with deep slits up the sides, they swing matching gold fans to the heated disco beat in the lavish opening number of the Miss Black America D.C. Pageant.
Drenched in the gold blazing dreams, 32 young women celebrate in their sensuous movements their hopes for a future in modeling, entertainment or broadcast journalism. Their faces are flawless with red gloss on their lips and shadows painted to perfect their cheekbones. The look of success is so powerful that even behind the curtain of Lisner Audiorium's stage they do not shed the patina of poise, beauty and eloquence -- offering vistors a chair, pecking each other on the cheek or calmly waiting to cross the stage wearing the prescribed aquamarine Danskin bathing suit.
Saturday night's four-hour-long competition began with the traditional swimsuit and evening-gown competitions. Then the 10 finalists sang, danced or acted in a talent competition and answered random questions to demonstrate their eloquence and personality.
Finally, 22-year-old Yvette Cason was crowned Miss Black D.C. 1981. After the red velvet cape was draped on her shoulders and the bouquet of red roses and white carnations placed in her arms, after she was surrounded and kissed by a flock of her peers in taffeta and satin, she said, wiping a few tears from her eyes, "I never thought I'd win -- my whole idea was exposure. I want to be an entertainer -- sing, dnace, everthing . . . I would like to see other young black women enter beauty contests."
But it was her mother, Elsie ("Obviously, I'm proud"), who summed up Yvette's dream and the mission of the pageant: to inspire black youth to reach for the stars and once grasped, to represent their people proudly. "I would like her to disseminate her talent with other young blacks."
As Black America D.C., Cason will participate in the Miss Black America Beauty Pageant, which has "grown up," said master of ceremonies Jim Vance of WRC-TV. He was a judge in the original 1968 national pageant. "It was in the basement of a condemned hotel in Atlantic City, down the street from the convention hall where they have the 'traditional' Miss America. We had only six or seven contestants, ginger ale for refreshments and bed sheets covered the tables . . . It was slapped-together affair.
"The point is," he said, "it's come a long way."
Cason receives (among other gifts) two round-trip tickets to Paris, a 10-day trip to Montego Bay and a full scholarship from the DeVore modeling school. The competition for 18- to 25-year-old women was sponsored by a number of Washington businesses including Safeway, Riggs National Bank, Blake Construction Company and C&P Telephone. Entertainment was provided by impressionist Chris Thomas and The Delfonics, a soul group that had the audience swooning and singing along.
Notable black names navigated the evening. In addition to Vance, Donnie Simpson of WKYS radio was a master of ceremonies. Actor Richard Roundtree and Audrey Smaltz, formerly of Ebony magazine, provided plenty of clever comments. Effi Barry, wearing a long, black tunic, occupied a third-row aisle seat. Her silver-and-turquoise necklace, earrings and bracelets were "complaints of Turquoise Eagle," according to an advertisement in the pageant's program.
Meanwhile, backstage, tall security men guarded the women and jewelry. Hairdressers and cosmeticians shuttled from face to face as the contestants stood patiently in the wings, waiting for their names to be announced.
Debby Abney, 22, a graduate of Jacksonville University and a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, said, "I want the world to know that black women are intelligent as well as beautiful.
"I'm new at this," she said of beauty pageants. "I could give a darn about them. But this is an opportunity for me to get the exposure I need."
She joined the ROTC program in college on a bet, discovered the benefits of the armed forces and now wants to make a career of the Navy. She intends to be an admiral, because "that's the highest you can go."
Marita Crawford, 23, was named Miss Congeniality. She is a receptionist who hopes "to be discovered as an actress." The pageant is "a plus to all black women," she said, because it's "a pageant of unity." In competition, the women grew closer, she said. There was no jealousy; they were "totally a family."
Darlene Gartrell, 22, is a senior at the University of Maryland who someday wants to host her own news talk show: "A person should never forget who they are. They should never forget where they came from, and a black person especially."
"Personally," Vance said, "I don't think much of beauty pageants. But I participate in them because I don't see anything wrong with celebrating black women -- distinctively, separately, any way you want to describe it. It's important for blacks to be aware that they are black, to be responsible for recoginizing it."
But as for beauty pageants in general, "I'd like to see none of them at all," Vance said. "Maybe it's the production rather than the women. You know, it's show biz."
"The ideal situation" would be to have only one beauty pageant for both black and white American women, said Rusty Jackson, executive director of the D.C. pageant. "But realistically I don't see that as happening."
Among the judges at Saturday night's pageant was cover girl Von Gretchen Shepard, Miss Black America 1974-'75. Her ebony skin and almond-shaped eyes have been photographed for Vogue, Bazaar, Essence, Cosmopolitan and the French magazine Official. She and her husband Steven McAlpin (also a model) have worked for the last two years in Paris.
She attributes a limited percentage of her success to the beauty pageant she won seven years ago. "It contributed to my national publicity, to my face becoming known. But once it came down to choosing me for work, I had to stand alone," Shepard said.
"Let's face it, the money to be made in modeling, the top dollars, do not come from my people. I'm a human being first, then a woman, an then a black. And if you want something bad enough you've got to work hard for it," she said. "I motivated myself. Nothing has been given to me. The thing that helps me most is this," she said, pointing a long red fingernail at her head.
As for the caliber of the contestants Saturday night, Shepard said, "I feel the the screening was not tight enough. A lot of the girls were overweight."
Cason, who pronounces her name with a French accent, is 5 feet 3 inches at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She rocked the audience when she sang "A Foggy Day" in the talent competition. And she expressed an underlying theme of the evening during the personality competition when she responded to a question about the influence of the recording industry on black Americans.
"We must be in tune with black art," she said, urging her audience to buy record albums and support the arts. "If you don't listen, then you don't know what's going on."