Once you've seen veteran ballroom dancers Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau waft, streak and swoon as one across a stage, it's hard to picture them apart. Sleek as greyhounds, their limbs twining and unraveling, they seem to have been put on this earth to dance -- and only with each other.

That dreamy, illusory bubble is burst the minute Dulaine and Marceau enter a lounge at the Kennedy Center to talk about art, the odd subculture of ballroom competition, and their acclaimed company, American Ballroom Theater, which performs tonight through Sunday at the Eisenhower. They don't even sit side by side: He perches on the edge of a straight-backed chair; she settles her sparrow-like self on a couch. He's oh so French. She's thoroughly American. And as the conversation progresses, you realize that they don't even see eye to eye on some pretty basic matters.

"It's a man's world on the ballroom dance floor," declares Dulaine in his suave-but-emphatic way. "He's in charge. The man's the frame, the lady's the picture. The lady is very much the passive partner. She must have the willingness to go with her partner."

"I would like to say in the feminine defense: It is not as one-sided as Pierre makes it sound," counters Marceau. "Dancing with a partner is conversation. When you talk to someone there is an interplay. You do something and I respond. That's what dancing is. It's an awareness of what another person is doing. What makes it work is that both people are willing to listen and do, to be the initiator and the receiver."

"At the highest level of dancing, yes," purrs Dulaine. "But with beginners, somebody must be in charge of the driving."

This is not bickering, just friendly give-and-take. After 17 years spent dancing together (currently eight times a week in the Broadway production of "Grand Hotel") and seven years co-directing American Ballroom Theater, they've learned to live with their differences. Those who have followed the troupe from its early days will be saddened by the fact that its founders no longer appear with Ballroom Theater.

"We always knew that at some point our dancers would have to go on without us," explains Marceau. "Luckily, 'Grand Hotel' provided a reasonable excuse. Last summer we did a few performances at Jacob's Pillow and it was very strange. It was hard dancing with them. Even though we're directors, it was an intrusion."

"We have our age going against us," adds Dulaine. "I know Fred Astaire danced well into his later years, but at what level compared to what he was? It's better to give up while you can. Like a parent, there has to be a time when you will stop and the children must go forward."

Marceau, who began as a ballet dancer, enrolled in an instructor training class at an Arthur Murray studio out of sheer financial desperation. After two years teaching the waltz and fox trot, Dulaine entered the picture.

Having achieved quite a measure of success abroad with a European partner, Dulaine had come to New York for a two-week vacation.

"I went to say hello to some people at Arthur Murray, and they ended up offering me a job," he recalls. "I stayed for three months. Then six more. Then they paid for my work permit." And he never went back. Dulaine and Marceau soon established themselves as a premier ballroom/adagio team, winning numerous awards, including four British Exhibition championships. He opened a school. They judged and made guest appearances at competitions the world over. They also came to the realization that the realm of ballroom dance was simply not enough for them artistically speaking.

"I always thought that the world of ballroom dancing was the weirdest thing," admits Marceau, musing over the ultra-codified, stylized, beaded and baubled society that helped bring her so much acclaim. "Then I went with a friend to a cat show in New York. These are, again, normal human beings we're talking about. With cages that match their pretty strange-looking cats. You get involved in a cult thing, and learn to abide by its rules. The system describes the rules and you start to accept them, see them as something desirable. We all do it to some extent. I mean, look at the ballet world."

As an antidote to the competitive arena, the pair teamed up with another championship couple and formed a company. Soon two more couples joined the crew. Each had their specialty: tango, waltz or the ultra-continental style favored by Dulaine and Marceau. Yet even that format had its drawbacks.

"It was not really a company, it was like 'Stars of American Ballroom Theater,' " explains Dulaine. "Once one of these people left, it was not easy to get new ones. It's like -- how many Baryshnikovs or Nureyevs are there? So we decided to make a real ensemble, to build a repertory, to develop dancers over time." To that end, they have commissioned works from Broadway choreographers Patricia Birch and Graciela Daniele -- the latter's "Presley Pieces," set to an Elvis medley, will be performed at the Eisenhower -- choreographed their own pieces, and premiered masterly suites of American and European ballroom styles by such masters as the late John Roudis and company member Gary Pierce.

When asked if they view their art form as a temporary respite or escape from this war-infused world of ours, the pair wax eloquent -- and in tandem:

"It's pretty -- and it's hopeful," says Marceau. "Here you see couples, two people getting along, in that they can maneuver around the dance floor without tripping each other. In our hearts that's what we all hope the world can do. If two people onstage can do it, and then six, then the implications are universal."

"Why do you think there is such big business for ballroom at this time?" muses Dulaine.

"Because people need to hang onto other people."

"Because ballroom is such an intimate thing. People like to be held." Dulaine smiles dreamily. "And what better way is there to be held than to move, with a partner, to music?"