They breathe a different sort of air, dancers do. The taut lines of the neck, the bird-like tilt of the head, the clear thrust of the jaw -- there is something not quite earthly about them. How do you approach such delicacy? Few of the earthbound guests at the Kennedy Center last night dared.

"They're kind of shy," said Washington Ballet member Dana Cronin of the guests at last night's fundraiser for the ballet. Next to the pale, thin, blond Cronin, the tuxedoed and beaded regulars of the charity crowd looked heavy, leaden. "They're afraid almost. I don't know what they think we're going to do. They're shy, we're shy . . ."

Her voice faded as she looked into the crowd, one species looking at another.

But they were there to raise money, not chat. The Washington Ballet will tour China in May and such a trip doesn't come cheap. To help, about 500 people came to watch the ballet and singer Karen Akers perform ($50 each), and some 375 stayed around for a $500 dinner afterwards, where they got to dance and perform a little themselves and raise about $200,000.

"The hardest of all the arts to get support for is the ballet," said Daniel Terra, ambassador at large for cultural affairs. "Do you think it might be because it's a little harder to understand? Do you think that might be it? I don't think it's harder. I love it."

And, for the last few years, dance has drawn an increasingly large audience.

"I think it's settling now," said Washington Ballet artistic director Mary Day. "It's hit an all-time high and it's left a lot more balletomanes here than there were before. I think it's peaked, but I think what's here now is here to stay. I think it's become a part of our life."

One of the balletomanes is Washington Ballet board member James Akers, who brought his wife Karen into the fold.

"My husband's a real ballet buff," said the very very tall and very very thin singer, who appears in the new movie, "The Purple Rose of Cairo." "I just try and do my part."

Her part last night consisted of singing a few sentimental songs while members of the ballet company swooned and swept by her.

"I frankly was terrified by the idea of words and movements and song," Akers said.

"Just this little bit," she said, and she moved her right leg tentatively, "was enough to give me nightmares for weeks."

Then several lithe dancers in satin and dramatically poised sequined hats besieged Akers.

"You were wonderful!" one of them said breathily.

"So were you!" she responded in her full, throaty voice.

Moving in to the dinner of salmon and filet were the people who made all of this possible, the people who spend several nights a week at this kind of thing.

"It was very nice," said builder Alan Kay of the performance. Kay is the chairman of the annual Cancer Ball and therefore an expert on such events. "Quick. That's what I like. It was perfect."