Pat Depue, head usher for the Kennedy Center Opera House, has a simple explanation for the bout of dance mania that has recently seized Washington: "It's like when you eat one potato chip or chocolate, and you've got to eat one more. It's sort of an addiction."

Depue should know. She has spent the past 14 years interacting with thousands of dance fans at the Kennedy Center, and she says she senses a definite surge in audience enthusiasm this spring. It started, she believes, with the appearances of Dance Theatre of Harlem, gained momentum when the Central Ballet of China came to town, and has grown to epic proportions since American Ballet Theatre's arrival a week ago yesterday.

"I feel that people are starved for dance," Depue explains. "I hear so many patrons saying: 'We were so hungry for dance. We were really ready for it.' "

ABT has certainly provided satisfying fare. Last week, ABT Artistic Director Mikhail Baryshnikov and Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri drove fans to distraction with their ardent portrayals of the doomed peasant girl Giselle and her two-timing lover Albrecht.

But that was only the beginning.

Last night's ABT gala featured the Washington premiere of Artistic Associate Kenneth MacMillan's "Requiem," set to music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, of "Cats" and "Evita" fame.

Tonight's all-Tchaikovsky program includes the Washington premiere of Associate Director John Taras' "Francesca da Rimini."

The centerpiece of tomorrow's bill is the world premiere of a ballet by Karole Armitage, a former Merce Cunningham dancer who was recently dubbed "Punk Ballerina" by Vanity Fair magazine. Armitage's work, her first for ABT, includes a score of music by classical composer Paul Hindemith, avant-garde composer Peter Gordon, a band called the Shags, and a Nichols and May comedy routine. Painter David Salle, Armitage's fiance', has done the designs, and Baryshnikov heads the cast.

But it doesn't take a premiere -- or even Baryshnikov in the program -- to sell out the house. No matter what the fare, Depue says, the fans keep coming.

"Once you've seen it, you're hooked," she declares of the ballet, citing the young woman who bought 18 tickets at the start of the ABT run, and the balletomanes who sat through all four "Don Quixotes" this past weekend.

"It's like the grass. The grass needed the rain, and Washington needed the dance."

Washington got even more than ABT this week; there is also the world premiere of a Judith Jamison dance by the Washington Ballet, and a one-night-only performance by Molissa Fenley, one of New York's most acclaimed contemporary choreographers.

Kent Cartright, assistant provost of arts and humanities at the University of Maryland, doesn't quite define himself as a dance addict, but a jam-packed week like this one gets him pretty revved up.

"It's very distressing, times like these," Cartright says, chuckling. "You can't see everything. I'm going to see ABT Wednesday night -- I've never seen Baryshnikov before, so it's a chance in a lifetime. Even though I have to teach a class at 8 the next morning. It's worth staying up late. I'm willing to lose a little sleep.

"Then, Friday night, I'll be at the Washington Ballet -- I have a subscription -- to see the new ballet by Judith Jamison. But that means missing Molissa Fenley here on campus."

Fenley, an almost frighteningly energetic postmodern dancer/choreographer, will premiere three works at Tawes Theatre.

Cartright, 42, was bitten by the dance bug only recently. "I was at Kansas State University, and somehow I found myself chairman of the board of a modern dance company there. Then I took my first dance class. It was the most horrible experience . . . but I went back, and eventually became beguiled."

Since his arrival at Maryland, Cartright has plunged into the dance scene full force. He chairs the board of Maryland Dance Theatre, takes several classes a week and attends between 50 and 70 dance and theater performances a year.

"I go to virtually everything that I can fit into my schedule," he says. "But it's still a fairly new world for me. There's so much I haven't seen yet."