It is only the fourth annual show of neon art at the Zenith Gallery (1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW), but neon lighting has festooned American shops and restaurants, brazenly advertising its own presence as well as the establishments it was designed to promote, since 1923. And this year neon lighting, introduced in Paris in 1910, celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Both dates are probably ones that the neon artists assembled by Zenith would rather forget. Since that time, neon has been firmly -- obstinately, they might say -- associated with "signage," much to the consternation of neon artists. "Neon," says Larry Kanter in a videotape titled "The Neon Jungle," "is just now falling into the hands of people outside the advertising industry." Neon artist and craftsman Ted Bonar, in the same videotape, makes a plea for professional analysis and criticism of neon works as art.

Neon art seems to have progressed beyond those star-shaped desktop pieces popular a few years ago. Now, for prices ranging from $350 to $6,000, you can hang a hot pink neon squiggle on slate by Lynn Westbay Woloshin on your wall, or something a little more complicated, such as Christopher Bean's facetiously titled "On the Wagon" -- two large coffee urns from which flow white neon tubes toward two coffee mugs a few feet away. Margery Goldberg, who also runs the gallery, softly counters the high-tech intensity of this art by embedding neon in polished wood.

The show runs through March 30. Dance Grants

The Washington Ballet and the Maryland Dance Theater have been awarded subsidies from the National Endowment for the Arts in the latest round of grants to the dance field for the '85-'86 season. The Washington Ballet will receive $20,000 -- a decrease from last year -- to support increased salaries and schedules for dancers, as well as to help in the creation of a new work. Maryland Dance Theater, a modern dance repertory troupe in residence at the University of Maryland, College Park, will get $13,700 to support creation of three new works, including costume designs.

Washington Ballet executive director Elvi Moore says the company is commissioning another new work from choreographer Choo San Goh, which will premiere sometime next season. "We're delighted that Choo San Goh will do another work for us," she said. Goh's "Schubert Symphony" premiered last week at Lisner Auditorium.

From 200 applicants this year, NEA chose 112 companies to receive a total of $5.8 million. Grants in the dance company category are made to troupes "of regional or national significance" and are awarded primarily on the basis of artistic quality, as judged by NEA's panel review system. All grants must be matched with private or local funds.

The grants range from a minimum of $9,100 to a maximum of $500,000. Only one company, American Ballet Theatre, was awarded the maximum amount. Eight other companies will receive more than $200,000 apiece -- the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the New York City Ballet, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Twyla Tharp Dance Company. Arts, Etc.

Take in dinner, a performance and a discussion in the "Arts and Dialogue" series, each Tuesday night through April 30 at the Shiloh Family Life Center (1510 Ninth St. NW; 232-4200). The Maurice Robinson Quartet performs March 5 at 6 p.m, followed by Askia Muhammed, who will speak on "A Look at the Black and White Press" . . . Performance and discussion strike again in the Dance Exchange-sponsored "Process and Product: The Evolving Dance Aesthetic," Friday at 8 p.m. at Mount Vernon College, Hand Chapel (2100 Foxhall Rd.; 232-0833) . . .

March 8 is International Women's Day, and Roadwork Inc. is sponsoring a poetry reading and concert to benefit the Sisterfire Festival, 8 p.m. at All Souls' Church (16th and Harvard streets NW; 234-9308) . . . Applications for grants in aid are available from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. There are several categories in which nonprofit arts organizations or individuals may apply: crafts, dance, literature, media, music, theater, visual arts, interdisciplinary performance art, multidisciplinary art and professional arts training. The deadline is April 5 (724-5613).