Cathy Paine & Friends, a company that joins one of Washington's most skillful and witty choreographers with some of its finest dancers, functions as an ensemble within the best theatrical traditions of that word. Paine has a knack for identifying each of her dancers' special gifts and developing these traits as specific character types within her works. These types are then used as foils with which to establish contrast and conflict.

Paine's three dances on yesterday's Glen Echo Festival program employed this inherent character contrast to work within the challenge form. A characteristic of American entertainment genres from tap dancing to the minstrel show, the challenge features performers good-naturedly attempting to outdo each other. Paine's use of the challenge has her dancers egging each other on to jump higher, step faster, be funnier.

"Catching Up" is a humorous roustabout in which the diminutive Paine uses all her ingenuity and physical resources to stop Geoff Harrison in his purposefully striding tracks. Paine then switches gears with "Hand-Me-Down Dances," a genial hoedown featuring the entire company. Beginning as a harmonious cluster, the dancers quickly break off into sections of straight-faced Marx Brothers partnering and eccentrically disconnected pantomime within square-dance conventions.

Even in the more serious "Enters My . . .", the challenge form is employed to contrast Ellen Gray Denker's lyrically languid style with Katherine Fowle Griswold's charged extensions. Danced to an E. E. Cummings text arranged by Teddy Klaus, the piece builds to a climax challenge of running, leaping and gesturing before settling into a repetition of its quiet beginnings.