The 5-year-old in the Dolly Parton wig and the padded bra and the white jumpsuit is bending her pudgy body into a back flip and hoping for the best.

The 4-year-old on roller skates can't find one of her batons.

One of the contestants is in desperate need of a diaper change.

The mother of the kid who does the routine to "Baby Face" is convinced that Disco Mickey House has stolen some of her moves.

Welcome to the Little Miss and Teen Miss United States Grand Nationals at the Hotel Washington where the youngest contestant is 18 months old and the order of the day is disorderly parody of beauty on parade, one stop among many stops on the pageant circuit, a cross country network of competitions in crinoline, weekend exercises in parental pride and childhood fantasy.

"Think of it as Little League for little girls," say the parents, as they try to explain what it is that finds them driving in the dead of night to Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, some of them traveling to 30 and 40 pageants a year. "It's an addiction," others say. "Once you're hooked, you're hooked." Like any habit, it grows stronger, sending them off to find the private dress designers and professional photographers, hairstylists, makeup artists and modeling instructors who will give their girl the extra dimension in such events as the Sunshine Pageant and the Stars of Tomorrow, the competitive edge that will see their daughters crowned Miss LaPetite or Miss Storybook Princess, Little Miss Northern Ohio Superstar, Miss Hemisphere, Little Miss International Sunshine Celebrity, Miss Springtime Princess, or Steel Valley Model of the Year.

Certainly the emotion can get as intense as it does for more recognized rites of passage, with parents who are afraid to leave their daughters alone for fear of what other parents might do to sabotage their chances. Certainly the rationales sound familiar -- it teaches them about winning, losing and life, the parents tell you, it teaches them confidence. There are other reasons, of course, having more to do with the remembrance of things past. "These are the things that I wanted to do that I never could," says one mother. "I guess I'm kind of living my life through her. I laways liked dressing up dolls, and now I got my little girl," says another.

They gathered in Washington this weekend: Little girls in fishnet stockings. Little girls wiggling parts of bodies that aren't even there yet. Little girls whose big eyes are surrounded by eyeshadows of dusty pink and mocha mauve and midnight blue and hysterical green. Little girls, fresh as morning, for whom the idea of being in a beauty pageant is a lark, a giggle, a chance to lap up the proffered adoration. Little girls who approach a beauty pageant as lightheartedly as they would a knife fight.

There are six different age groups competing for titles here, from the 18-month to 3-year-old division trying fot the title of "Baby Doll Miss United States," on to the 4- to 6-year-olds in the "Tiny Miss United States" category, the 7- to 9-year-old in the "Miniature Miss United States," on up through "Little Miss," "Junior Miss" and "Teen Miss." The really interesting action, however, is the 4- to 6-year-olds, where you get contenders like Jennifer Cooley of Honea Path, S.C., 6 years old and already a world-class coquette, with her long auburn hair and her laughing eyes and her ability to twist adults around her little finger.

Ask most of the kids here what they like about being in pageants, which is the kind of dippy question that comes up in conversation with 4- and 5- and 6-year-olds, and you get answers like "making friends with all the other girls" or "dressing up on pretty clothes" or "staying in motel rooms" or whatever other answers their mothers came up with on the drive down from Sandusky.

Ask Jennifer what she likes about pageants and she looks you in the eye, smiles sweetly, and doesn't skip a beat. "Winning," says Jennifer, all dressed up in her short little party dress for the party dress competition, with the yards and yards of white ruffled petticoats underneath and the green satin bows in her hair. She leans over and cups tiny hands around a listener's ear. "And I'll tell you a secret. I'm gonna win this one for sure."

There are 150 contestants entered in the pageant, most of them from places like Sharon, Pa., and Simpsonville, S.C., small towns, coal mining towns and factory towns where life looks down a one-way street and you don't always get better, you just get older. Their parents are mostly hard-working people with deeply lined faces and hands that are big and blunt and callused. They are, for the most part, people whose cultural compasses still point to home and family, hard work and saving grace, and they love their kids with a shudder, knowing just how short childhood can be. "She's the only one we've got," says Evelyn Miller of her daughter Sally. "Our only little girl. A lot of the girls I growed up with, they just threw their lives away. I want something better for her."

And for the children, these moments on the runway are the ones when life seems nearly perfect, the way it is in the fairy tales, and the way it is on the television sets. The way their parents know it will never be again. And so they watch her, their darling, greedy eyes drinking in the glowing girl in the ruffles and the hair bows and the ribbons and the lace-trimmed anklets, in the $100 dress with the confident smile, as she walks down a runway wearing a rhinestone crown, the footlights shining up and the spotlight shining down, the center of attention. "I like seeing her up on the stage," says Bill Wiesen, a steel worker from Sharon, Pa., about his daughter, Lori. "Underneath those lights, she's beautiful."

It is Thursday, Day One of the Grand Nationals and shortly it will be time for the sportswear competition. Some of the girls in the 4-to-6 division are practicing their modeling on the runway. Step, step, step, short stubby little legs dressed in pantsuits and riding habits and sunsuits and jumpsuits. Step, step, step, lunge, pivot, tilt the head with the carefully arranged curls, cock the elbow, smile. It's the smile that's spooky. It is a smile disconnected from any delight, a smile that spreads itself in calcified charm, unhinged from the wide eyes that rivet on anyone with a pen in hand who might be making a judgment. Walking Barbie Dolls. Stepford babies. "What if I mess up and forget to put my hands on my hip?" a little girl in long curls wails. "What happens then, Mama?"

Watching them all with a practiced eye is Gladys Persinger, the executive director of the pageant who began to competition seven years ago "when kids were wearing dirty faded blue jeans and all that and I thought little girls weren't being little girls anymore." Persinger is a middle-aged woman with a rugged, weathered face who spent the first 14 years of her life in an orphanage in Alliance, Pa., and who says she is running this pageant "for the children." She likes, she says, "to see little girls all dressed up real pretty. Pageants are good for them," she says. "They learn how to lose and they learn how to win. It gives them confidence. It's an education for them."

After a while, at the talent competition, they begin to look like pixilated puppets, little hands jerking up and down spasmodically, little feet scampering about in halfhearted fidelity to the beat. Lots of tap dancers. Lots of acrobatic/tap dancing/baton twirlers. Lots of singers. Lots of advice:

"Shake your thing, honey, move your buns."

"Make eyes at the judges, sweetie, like that other little girl."

"Pour it on baby, do the best you can."

"Give it all you got."

But there are times when even everything you've got doesn't seem good enough. Dana Vegoda rushes from the floor, tears brimming over onto painted cheeks after an impressive rendition of the song "Baby Face" accompanied by an energetic gymnastics routine and elaborate facial expressions. Impressive, that is, to everyone but Dana, who is inconsolable. "She's been in this for three years," explains her mother, Pam, a coal miner's wife from Brownsville, Pa., as she holds her 6-year-old daughter. "This is her last big year. Every year she's been beaten by the 6-year-old, and now it's her year. She doesn't want to mess it up."

As it turns out, Dana hasn't messed it up. What Dana has done is tie for first place with one Darcy Butto, she of the fabled Disco Mickey Mouse acrobatic routine, complete with tricks performed on a moving platform. The impasse means that hours before the final awards banquet, both little girls are back in the traces, doing it all over again.

After round two, the Butto camp is ecstatic, although no one will know until the awards night who the victor was. The kid's done better than she's ever done before and soon they come over to the Vegoda corner exuding graciousness. The mood there, however, is less than jubilant. "Your daughter's voice is fantastic, just fantastic," says Nicky Butto. "I wish Darcy could sing like that."

"Oh, no, oh, no, she really messed up," says Pam Vegoda.

"No, really, it was fantastic. Darcy says she wants to take singing lessons now."

"Well, Dana can do it 100 percent better than that," says Vegoda wearily, and, taking her daughter by the hand, she leads her slowly from the room.

"A lot of pageants . . . take politics to win," Charlee Aiken, of Asheville, S.C., says, as his daughter Christy, 4, walks down the runway in the party dress competition. Christy started when she was 2, in the Baby Miss America pageant. "We didn't really know what we were doing," Aiken shrugs. "She had bangs, she had short hair, we just didn't have her set up right." But after that, Christy, who is walking down the runway in a $145 white lace dress with not a hair of her long, curled and beribboned brown hair out of place, won "Miss Land of the Sky" in Asheville, and "Our Little Miss" and "Miss La Petite" and last August she took "World's Best Three-Year-Old" in Las Vegas and, together with her brother, Lee, 5, "World's Best Duet" for a tap and jazz rendition of "Boogie Baby."

So far, Christy has won 29 trophies, and Aiken figures he spends several thousand dollars a year on pageants, what with the travel, the handmade dresses and sports outfits, the registration fees ($140 at this pageant), the makeup and hairstyling, the portfolio of photographs. Of course, it's meant sacrifices. Aiken has sold his golf clubs, given up Chivas Regal and dinners out and smokes a 15-cent cigar instead of a 50-cent one. "I guess I could put her through college cheaper than this," he says. "But if you don't put them into it early, they might never want to do it, they might never want to perform." Besides, he says, "Everyone likes a hobby, you know what I mean? And this is one the whole family can enjoy."

Enjoy, that is, as long as one takes the necessary precautions against what is known in the business as Pageant Mothers, a species of parents long on viciousness and short on scruples. "You'sve go to be careful," Aiken says. "You can't leave your kid's outfit hanging up in the dressing rooms, they'll come and tear it or slit it or break the zipper. And you've got to watch your child. Some mothers will push the kid just as she's about to go on stage. And you make sure you're around them when they're going upstairs -- one shove and you can have a broken ankle. We never let Christy out of our sight at pageants."

After the Grand Nationals, Aiken says he and his wife, Eileen, will be getting Christy ready for another competition in Las Vegas. "You've got to try on all her clothes. A good sports outfit won't last but six months because it's got to fit her tight. And all her shoes. And make sure her pants are in good order in case they show when she's doing her turns. And then you practice her modeling. We get her all dressed up to get her in the mood and then we watch her walk and we tell her what we like and what we don't like."

This fall, Aiken, says, his daughter will be taking dancing lessons 30 miles away from home, her weak point being the talent competition. "I'd like to see her get into movies and acting. Me, I was born in the mountains, we didn't have much. I used to dance on the street for money during World War II. My voice was so bad, they made me stand outside the church when it came time to sing. I want to give her the opportunities I didn't have."

During the party dress competition, it's getting tense. The girls are lined up waiting to take their turns on the runway, the house lights go down, the canned music goes up, and mothers are everywhere, applying a comb to an errant, curl, painting cherry red lips into a pantomime of passion, adding a work of caution: "Dammit, darlin', don't you dare sit down!"

"Don't squish my dress!" says number 33, in a long yellow dress with a hoop skirt and acres of lace.

"I'm not squishing your dress, you're squishing my dress," says number 34, tossing her blood ringlets and giving her a little shove with her pristine white gloves for emphasis.

"No fighting, no fighting," says number 33. "You'll get your makeup messed up, remember?"

Jennifer Cooley surveys the scene with cool serenity. Who, she is asked, does she think is the pretties girl there?

Jennifer smiles tolerantly and smooths a ruffle.

"Who else?"

The crumpled mass of brown curls and spangled blue jeans sobs loudly in her mother's arms. "I don't want to be interviewed," wails Brandy Gress, 4, late the first night of the pageant. It is 9 p.m., and she and her mother have just arrived, having missed the plane from Newark, Ohio. All the other girls in her age group have gone in for their one-minute interviews before a three-judge panel rating them on appearance (which includes neatness, posture, makeup and hair), attitude (postive and negative), ability to speak (diction, content, maturity of answer) and vocal expression (loud, soft). In this case, the interview seems a little superfluous. Brandy's attitude is negative, her ability to speak is certainly adequate to the occasion and her vocal expression is loud and getting louder. "I don't want TO GO TO AN INTERVIEW!"

"You have to, Brandy," says her mother, Karen Gress, a beautician while the other mothers look on. Finally one of them intercedes. "Look Brandy, look. You don't know me, but that's my daughter, Angie, over there, and she doesn't want to do her interview either. She wants to go upstairs and go to sleep, don't you Angie?" Angie nods. "But she's going to do it anyway because she knows that then we can go get something to eat, isn't that right, Angie?" Another nod. But Brandy is not convinced. Karen Gress sighs. They've only been on the circuit a short time, Brandy having got her start at a pageant in Pittsburgh. "She got first runner-up and I took Mrs. Congeniality and Mother of the Year. It's just that she hasn't eaten all day. Usually she loves it, just loves it," she says, sounding anthem number one in the pageant litany. She follows it quickly with, "Of course, I would never make her do anything she doesn't want to do."

Well, yes, says Carol Patterson, there just might be a problem having two daughters competing against each other in the same age group, but both Jennifer, 7, and Amy, 8, wanted to be in the pageant. So did their older sister, Jill, 13, but that was no problem since she would compete in a different age category. So Patterson decided to let them both compete, although it is Jennifer, she says, who "is really pageant material. Amy, unfortunately, has a severely crossed eye." She sighs. "I just wish there was a way that the judges could see the inner beauty of these girls."

Not to worry, says a veteran mother. "The judges never take off for acts of God or braces."

At the awards dinner Saturday night, everyone agrees that the competition at this pageant was stiff. "So many beautiful girls," the mothers sigh. "So many little angels."

The little angels are clustered around the trophies that are lined up like soldiers going into battle. There are more than 140 trophies waiting to be presented, making it very difficult for most children not to glean a little gold and, of course, a little inducement to enter another pageant. There are awards for state winners, awards for Miss Congeniality, Miss Photogenic, Miss Ambassador, Miss Entertainment, what one cynical observer calls the "throw 'em a bone awards." In some age categories there are as many as ten runners-up in the beauty and talent contests, which are judged and awarded separately.

But it is not the battalion of gold that attrcts the little girls' eyes, but the big awards, the ones for the top winners in beauty and talent, the ones that bring with them the French-style telephone, the little television set, the $100 bill, the robe, the crown and the scepter. "Oh, I'm as nervous as a jaybird," says Jennifer as the awards are announced and the winners march up to get their trophies.

Actually at the beginning of the evening, she had been as cool as a cucumber as she waltzed around the tables, letting the other mothers and interested observers get a good look at her. "I don't know, she just doesn't look like a winner to me," said the director of a rival pageant. "She's just not my style. I like 'em more natural, more wholesome, you know what I mean?"

"I think she's kind of cute."

"Love the hair."

"Wonder where she got the dress."

But Jennifer has given up any pretense to good sportsmanship as the block lurches toward midnight and exhaustion begins to crack her self-confidence. The other contenders applaud politely as each trophy is announced, but Jennifer simply sits and stares. By now they're up to the talent awards and there is something of a difference of opinion when Darcy Butto gets first alternate and Dana Vegoda skips off with the crown et al.

"I don't believe it!" shouts Pam Vegoda, her heart and winged victory beating as one.

"I don't believe it," groans Nicky Butto on the other side of the room. Her companions meanwhile find much more colorful things to say about the decision.

Finally the moment approaches. There are ten runners-up in the beauty contest in Jennifer Cooley's age group and quickly the names are read off. By the time they get to second runner-up, Jennifer is on her feet. By first alternate, she's headed for the stage, and then, there it comes, the envelope please, and there she is, Jennifer Cooley, the new "Tiny Miss United States." Soon she is crowned and the scepter placed in her hand and soon she has taken her walk down the runway.

A few minutes later, she has almost forgotten it, accepting the congratulations with breezy nonchalance and heading for sleep.

Near her, at the next table, 5-year-old Deegee Duncan stares in wonder at her trophy for ninth runner-up in the talent division. Her great-grandmother, Mildred Medlock, smooths her dress with rough gnarled hands, the tears running down her cheeks.

"Oh, it's a miracle," she says. "It's a miracle. If she don't ever do nothing else with her life, it's enough. It's worth it. Every minute of it."