"This is no longer a democracy," barked Betty Tracy last Tuesday night, to the 85 women standing before her. "This is a benevolent dictatorship. And I am the dictator!"

Whereupon the women smiled and clapped.

A mighty curious response, you'd think -- especially from an exhausted group of singers who've just spent a whole evening rehearsing in the sweltering auditorium of an elementary school in Vienna.

But Betty Tracy is the E.F. Hutton figure of the Vienna-Falls Chapter of Sweet Adelines, Inc. She is the music director of that group, and when she talks, the chorus listens. If the members listen well enough to her benevolent dictates, glory may be theirs next month at the biggest international barbershop singing contest of the year.

Vienna-Falls is the top female barbershop chorus in the Washington area. On Nov. 9, its 99 voices will be in Las Vegas, hoping to become world champions.

Reaching for that goal may exceed the group's grasp. Few Vienna-Fallsians think they can win the world title. Betty Tracy doesn't, either, because the competition is so much more experienced. But you never know in contest singing -- so you never stop working. As Tracy put it, "The more you sweat on Tuesdays in Virginia, the less you sweat on the stage in Las Vegas."

Make no mistake: this group of musicians sweats. Other choruses break for milk shakes and chatter. Vienna-Falls drilled for three solid hours last Tuesday. Tracy was so intent on fixing one passage that she ran the chorus through it 14 times in a row. And this was only 48 hours after the group had spent an entire weekend rehearsing at a retreat in Prince Frederick, Md.

"People think barbershop singing by women is like girls' night out," Tracy said. "They ought to try it."

In fact, a surprising number of women have. Sweet Adelines has 33,000 members in the U.S., organized into 751 choruses. Twenty-six district champions, Vienna-Falls among them, will compete in Las Vegas next month.

Why do this, when husbands, children, careers and innumerable other diversions beckon? "Because I love it," said Shirley Baker, a retired kindergarten teacher from Rockville. "It's a lot of fun," added Anne Rhome, a nursing instructor from Springfield. "I feel like a star when I'm singing with this group."

I'll be rooting hard for this bunch on Nov. 9, because they're truly locals looking to make good.

So many Washingtonians think our pro sports teams "represent" us. But those performers are all paid to be here, and they probably wouldn't spend another hour here if their work didn't require it.

The women of Vienna-Falls are as honest a cross-section of real Washingtonians as you could wish: secretaries, saleswomen, housewives, mother-and-daughter combinations. They sing as well as you could ever wish, too. Circle Nov. 9 on your calendar, and help me hope.