"Reach with your right hand," Chuck Davis, director of a dance company at the Bronx Community College, commanded the House appropriations subcommittee on the Interior at yesterday's hearing on the National Endowment for the Arts' budget, "and imagine that you are the endowment." Davis' arm went up high. Subcommittee chairman Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) and staff, already on their feet with the others in the room, dutifully followed his instructions. "Stretch, pull in those stomach muscles.

"Now, raise your left hand," said Davis, putting the people in the Rayburn hearing room through their paces. "You are the endowment. You are reaching high. Now just drop your hands to your side. That's what happens when NEA funding is cut." Those in the room broke into chortles and applause.

Davis was one of several performing artists testifying before the subcommittee. Actress Colleen Dewhurst, opera singer Rise Stevens, jazz musician Max Roach and violinist Itzhak Perlman, along with corporate and local government officials from across the nation, spoke against the Reagan administration's proposal to cut federal arts funding from $143 million this fiscal year to $100 million next fiscal year. The artists fervently proclaimed that the arts were crucial to the fabric of American life and denounced the notion that they were frivolous.

"These are people who stand on the stages now that did not exist 15 years ago, who express feelings the audience didn't even know they had," Dewhurst said. "This is a people's art."

After the hearing, she added: "We're the people that the government sends when they want the U.S. represented. We're also the ones they call when they're running for office."

Said Perlman, "I wish I didn't have to testify. We should all be sold on the arts. It should be as automatic as breathing."

It did not go unmentioned that this year's testimony against proposed budget cuts paralleled last year's testimony after Reagan proposed a 50 percent cut in NEA funding.

"I'm astonished that I'm here," said Lucien Wulsin, chairman of the Colorado State Council on the Arts and Humanities. "I thought we'd won the battle last year."

"We have to make this trip to Washington with stupefying regularity," said folk singer and actor Theodore Bikel, "as if we have to reinvent our existence." Bikel warned that if funding for the arts is left mainly to the private sector, "the quality of the art supported will be irrevocably altered. The private sector has a history of funding yesterday's successes, not tomorrow's promises. I'm talking about funding the marginal, the bold, the experimental."

But there may be no need for worry on that issue, because "there is no way the corporate community can pick up the shortfall created by federal cuts in social services and the arts," said Frank Saunders, vice president of Philip Morris, which does contribute substantially to the arts. Even if corporations "miraculously doubled" their contributions, they still could not be "the catalytic agency" that the government has been for the arts, Saunders said.

"The fact of the matter is the overwhelming number of American businesses do not support the arts," said Saunders, who gave similar testimony last year. "Whatever success those that do contribute have in soliciting others to join them is achieved primarily by pointing to the practical and symbolic worth of federal funding."