WHEN MARU Montero moved to the Washington area 10 years ago from Mexico, she was prepared to give up dancing. She had performed for six years with the renowned Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, but when she and her American husband resettled here, Montero decided she was finished with dance. She took up sculpture instead.

"It was out of desperation," she says, describing two years of unhappiness as she struggled to learn English and adapt to a new culture.

But things turned around when she finally went back to her first love and formed her own dance troupe. Now, Maru Montero Dance Company performs 40 to 50 times a year throughout the area. This weekend the group performs at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly in a program of traditional Mexican dances. On the bill will be such dances as the bamba from Veracruz, where a newly married husband and wife tie a knot in a scarf using only their feet, and the Mexican hat dance, as well as lesser-known works. (Children dressed in Mexican attire will be admitted free.)

"We're doing beautifully -- we cannot complain," says Montero, who also runs a children's ensemble, Mini/Montero Dance Company. "The company is growing not in numbers but in quality."

Her company's popularity is rising at a time when Latin culture is being discovered by the mainstream. "Everything Latino has become trendy," Montero says. "It's funny how in the U.S. we take something and explode it and enjoy it at every point." But though she's getting a lot more requests for the salsa, Montero says she's not interested in capitalizing on a trend.

"It's not my motivation," she says. "I don't want to do it in a commercial way."

Montero says she prefers to earn a following the old-fashioned way: with lots of rehearsals, vivid hand-sewn costumes and live music when possible. Says Montero, "It's the quality that finally grabs them."

MARU MONTERO DANCE COMPANY -- Saturday at 2 and 8 at Prince George's Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. Call 301/277-1710.