Most of us don't make a connection between powering a canoe or kayak and the movements of modern dance, but Margaret Toms did soon after she started paddling.

Toms was a fine arts/dance major at Florida State University and for the last few years also has been a whitewater instructor at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains.

When Bunny Johns, NOC's director of instruction, asked her to develop a set of exercises that would help students limber up before the clinics, she based them on modern-dance floor exercises.

Canoeing and kayaking are sports of skill and finesse, but the paddlers body must be supple and able to stretch to get the most effect for each stroke.

When you first begin to canoe, you rely on arms and shoulders pushing and pulling the paddle through the water. As you gain experience and skill, you find yourself using more abdominal and large back muscles.

To increase the reach and resilience of the muscles used in paddling, Toms developed a series of exercises designed to stretch those muscles gradually. There are exercises for the neck, shoulders, torso, abdomen, back and legs.

She also calls for sit-ups, some straight and some rotating as you rise, knees bent, vertebrae by vertebrae off the floor.

Toms says to hold each position comfortably for about 10 seconds. "Don't bounce. It will contract and tighten muscles and can possibly lead to slight but painful muscle tears. And don't be impatient. It may take two or three weeks to feel positive results."

To get a copy of the stretching exercises NOC recommends, write NOC, Star Route, Box 68, Bryson City, North Carolina 28713.

Johns also offers some tips to people getting ready for the season: * Take the time to warm up and stretch before getting into your boat. *Running and weight training can be useful, particularly if you are interested in racing, but if you have been inactive for a while, any kind of conditioning program will help. *If you are over 40, see your doctor first. *Don't push yourself the first few times. Start with a shorter trip than you think you can handle. *If you are a whitewater paddler and usually are capable of handling Class III (intermediate) water, start with a Class I or II and work up gradually. *Stay on small streams while the water is cold so you can get to shore right away in case of a capsize.

Bill Endicott, coach of Washington's Canoe Cruisers Association slalom team and of the U.S. whitewater slalom team, also stressed the importance of a slow start and careful warmups.

"I also find chin-ups useful," he said, and likes basketball as a corollary sport. "It helps the hand-eye coordination which is so critical to good technique."

Work up your mind, too, by reading instruction books and reviewing the collection of guides to the streams of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.

For a clear, concise explanation of river canoeing, try Robert McNair's classic Basic River Canoeing.

For handsome, look at Canadian Bill Mason's new Path of the Paddle.

For practicality, collect the guidebooks and read them carefully -- and don't skip the introductory stuff in the front. That's where the authors explain their rating systems and codes for difficulty and scenic value.

The guidebooks give advice on maximum and minimum levels of water for canoeing safety and offer correlations with the river- level reports, which can be obtained from the U.S. Weather Service each day on 899- 3210.

Careful reading will familiarize you with local streams and help you set your sights accurately on what you can handle.

Many of them offer interesting nuggets on local history as well as some rather lively descriptions and blunt advice.

For instance, Roger Corbett calls Mill Creek near Lexington, "an untamed terror of a small stream. . . a trip for only the brave and the foolhardy, who must also be very good paddlers."

A word of warning: paddlers have been known to overdose on guidebooks. Recorded symptoms include quivering, hallucinations and muscle spasms reminiscent of draws, prys and braces and, in severe cases, compound back strokes. Hide the books until the symptoms pass.

The only cure is paddling, and we are fortunate that this region contains hundreds of miles of good canoeing waters: marshlands, the C & O Canal, natural and manmade lakes, meandering creeks and free-flowing rivers, plus some heart-stopping white whiter. The branches and forks of the Potomac alone could keep a dedicated paddler busy every weekend through fall.

The following guidebooks cover area canoeing streams and may be found in most canoe and outdoor retail stores:

Maryland and Delaware Canoe Trails by Ed Gertler

Virginia White Water by Roger Corbett

Potomac White Water by John Seabury Thompson

Wild Water West Virginia by Bob Burrell and Paul Davidson

Nearby Canoeing Streams by Ron and Kathy Canter

Blue Ridge Voyages (4 volumes) by Lou Matacia and Roger Corbett

Canoeing White Water River Guide by Randy Carter

The best way for newcomers (to Washington or to canoeing, or to both) to get started is to sign up for the courses offered by the Canoe Cruisers Association (Box 4116, Colesville, Maryland 20904) or the Monocacy Canoe Club (Box 1083, Frederick, Maryland 21701).