Eric Hampton started his own dance company in 1991 with a Dance for Life fund-raiser for the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Tony Powell, a former Hampton pupil who has taken over the benefits, presented this year's version at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater as a fund-raiser for both Hampton (now ill with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease) and the clinic.

Powell's energy and exuberance are immensely likable but sometimes get in the way of his good intentions; his pre-curtain speech soon became more of a commercial for Powell than a tribute to Hampton. Powell's work dominated the program: three dances, one a premiere.

Powell's new "Contrapunctus" to four short symphonies of William Boyce is a joyous, nonstop romp for 17 dancers. Powell is a fine traffic cop: That the dancers didn't smash into each other, dashing and jumping and running around the tiny Terrace stage at breakneck speed, was an awesome achievement. But he is, as yet, a facile stepmaker more than a choreographer; there's nothing in "Contrapunctus," or the other two Powell works on the program, beneath the surface energy.

In contrast, Hampton's "Beethoven Bits" is all about what's beneath the surface. A small but perfect work that makes ballet seem as natural as walking, "Bits" is a rich, witty essay on human interactions for three of Washington's best dancers: Alison Crosby, Lucy Bowen McCauley and Ingrid Zimmer.

A fresh and lovely "Waltz of the Flowers" from "The Nutcracker," choreographed by Michelle Lees and danced by youngsters from the Maryland Youth Ballet, and excerpts from Roudolf Kharatian's well-intentioned, though mawkish, "Stabat Mater" completed the program. It was in the Waltz where Hampton received a beautiful, and unexpected, tribute.

Fifteen-year-old Joie Meffert of the Maryland Youth Ballet danced the leading solo in the grave, careful way that is so endearing in very young performers, as though totally unaware of how very, very good her dancing was. But the audience saw it, and began to clap halfway through the solo, a slow, steady, surprised applause.

Meffert's dancing began to glow. She played with the music, finding the giggle and delighting in the swoop of it, dancing as freely and beautifully as a performer twice her age.

For a few seconds, one could see the ballerina Meffert might become. Hampton has worked with the Maryland Youth Ballet for much of his career here and has introduced hundreds of area youngsters to the joy dancing can bring. This "Waltz" was the dance for life, and it's what Hampton's life and career have been about.