Years ago, a small girl called Virginia Johnson danced in a children's benefit performance for the Kennedy Center.

Last night Johnson starred in "Giselle," with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

"It was like everyone's dream of being a star," said Johnson, as she and her father, James Johnson, swept into the reception following the performance. In the great cycle of things, Johnson's presence at the party helped raise almost $12,000 to send another Washington dancer to apprentice with the Dance Theatre. Johnson was one of the original dancers with the company when Arthur Mitchell founded it 17 years ago.

"We aren't really an organization. I guess you could call us the Friends of Arthur Mitchell," Marilyn Funderburk, one of the reception's organizers, said earlier while waiting for the curtain to go up to a standing-room-only house. Funderburk, who was an assistant social secretary in the Carter White House, was also responsible for getting the band for the party. "They're moonlighting, but they don't want me to say where they daylight."

The benefit began when "Arthur called me up," said Jackie Hendrick, cochairman with Bitsey Folger, "and said, could we please raise money to send a Washington dancer to the Dance Theatre?"

"That $12,000," said Funderburk, "takes care of room, board, tuition, shoes and equipment for a year."

Hendrick, who also handles worldwide travel for the popular dance company of 60, said, "Benefits are harder and harder to do in Washington because all of us work and it's a full-time job to do a benefit. We only asked 110 people, just enough to raise the money for the scholarship."

The group had to go to Houston to find Nan Shanks, the angel who picked up the tab for the lavish buffet -- baked oysters, pasta, meatballs and enough French pastries to ruin a dancer's figure. "We'd heard a lot about Arthur Mitchell and we wanted to help," Shanks said, at the buffet in the Watergate Hotel's Riverview Room. She brought along her daughters-in-law, Francie and Lois Shanks. "A grand reason for us to come to Washington," Nan Shanks said. Mitchell promised, in return, to go to Houston in 1986.

Mitchell, also the company's director (along with Karel Shook), almost seemed in danger of being carried away by his admirers. But he had time to say, "We ask cities to raise money to finance one of their dancers to join us, because it isn't fair to take all the money away to New York City. We hate to turn anyone away. No, we don't have competitions, life itself is competition enough. And we're always hoping for another Virginia Johnson."

The evening brought out many Washington Performing Arts Society stalwarts, including Mary Elizabeth Belin, of Evermay, one of the oldest and largest Georgetown estates, and Douglas Wheeler, WPAS managing director. Peggy Cooper and Conrad Cafritz were showing off pictures of their 3-month-old baby. John Walker of the National Cathedral was one of the first greeted by Folger. Billy Funderburk, back in his broker's office from the Mondale-Ferraro campaign, said he's been busy recently defending Ferraro's Diet Pepsi commercial.

As the ballet slippers carved in ice melted away on the buffet table, James Johnson looked around the room with satisfaction, and at his tall and beautiful ballerina daughter with pride. "She astounds me," he said.