Hurray and thank heavens, there is baton-twirling again at the Miss America Pageant. It's been a little out of fashion recently, having been replaced by opera singing, jazz dancing and classical piano.

I adore baton-twirling. It's such an all-American thing--taking a completely wacky act like throwing a stick up in the air and catching it, and then turning it into an art. And a competitive sport. Miss Florida, one of the two twirlers here, says there is a move on to make it an Olympic sport. And I say, more power to them. She learned twirling from her mother, and on the Fourth of July the two of them flip flaming batons in their driveway. Wow!

"Cool," says my daughter. But she says it in a way that means she's trying to be polite. She is not as admiring of baton-twirling as I am.

We have come here, my 13-year-old and I, to experience Miss America together. Millions of mothers and daughters in living rooms across the country will be tuning in tonight for the annual review of young women, grading each one with utter heartlessness. "What an ugly dress!" they'll say. "Look at those huge thighs!" They will not be discussing the scholarships or the community service but the hair, or the dumb way someone answered one of Marie Osmond's interview questions. And they'll bet on the winner with the same seriousness football fans bring to the outcome of a game.

It is not without trepidation that I have brought my daughter here, into the heart of another era's feminist darkness. What if she decides she wants to be Miss America?

In her heart of hearts, every girl really wants to be Miss America at some point in her life, says Linda Haas, director of the Hampton/Newport News contest and the 1982 Mrs. Virginia, as we stand amid racks of beaded gowns at the pageant trade show.

I wonder if that's true.

Pride of Petworth

Using the pictures in the official program, we've picked our contenders before even seeing them in person. I like Miss Mississippi, a pert blonde. "Too perfect," says Marina. I also like Miss Texas, a pert brunette. "Look at her big mouth! And her face is so red." Marina rejects her as well.

She likes Miss Connecticut, Miss Michigan, Miss New Jersey and Miss Alabama, all brunettes. But the candidate she starts promoting is Miss D.C., Rashida Jolley.

To be frank, Jolley's picture does not show her at her best. But my daughter is implacable--she is from D.C., and she is going to root for D.C., and that's that. The more we learn about Jolley, the more she likes her.

She plays the harp! "That's different." Indeed, Jolley is the only harp player in the pageant. And what about her platform, something about getting teens and seniors together through music? "That's good!"

We put in a request to interview her. The contestants are closely guarded while they're here, with a chaperon always in attendance. There are two times a day you're allowed to talk to them, at lunch and after the evening preliminary, if you've put in a written request. Even then, the press helpers constantly remind you that the girls have to eat lunch, or that they will miss the evening visitation, the 45 minutes they're allowed to see friends and family after the show.

But Rashida Jolley shows up. She is outgoing and adorable. Now 20, she is going to Nyack College in New York, but she grew up in Washington. Her family lives in Petworth, and she went to a succession of Christian schools before her mother decided to home-school her last three years of high school. Her father taught music at Duke Ellington, and her mother is a retired D.C. government attorney.

She was selected Miss D.C. on her fourth try, beating nine other girls. The Miss D.C. contest is not as big as those of a lot of states, and there have been years when the District sent no one at all to Atlantic City. The last winner from D.C. was Venus Ramey, in 1944, who is now living in Kentucky and running for president as a write-in.

Unlike all the states, D.C. couldn't even afford a banner to hang on the side of the convention center. "It's a small but growing contest," says Jolley cheerfully. She goes on to tell us she likes to jog, that she gave up sweets and sodas when she was 15, and that as long as she does her best here she will have no regrets.

"Do people ever look at you funny when you say you're from D.C.?" Marina asks.

"Yes!" she replies. "But here's what I say to them: Have you ever been there? And then--this really blows their mind--I say, 'Did you know all the museums are free in Washington?' And then I say, 'Would the president live in the middle of the city if it was really the murder capital of the U.S.?' "

Marina is snowed. "She is so nice," she says after Jolley has left to have lunch. But Miss Maryland is nice, too, and so is Miss Virginia--all the girls seem nice. And upbeat and energetic. They talk a lot about "being focused on my goals," and "achieving my dreams," and "working hard."

Miss Maryland, Sonia Amir, 24, maintains a 17-hour daily schedule, working out for two hours, practicing the piano, working and going to school. Until she quit to prepare for the pageant, she was a youth specialist for the Langley Park recreation department, and she's working on a master's degree in management and technology at the University of Maryland. She is also a Catholic youth minister, and absolutely stunning. Half Colombian and half Pakistani, she is one of the more exotic-looking contestants but has a big wide smile that is 100 percent American beauty pageant perfect. She is a contender.

"This group is tough," she says, assessing her chances. "In past years there was a clear winner. This year it's difficult to pinpoint." The current Miss America, Heather French, was the top pick as early as the preliminary week at Disney World, she says.

Amir has already won $13,000 as Miss Maryland, and a $5,000 wardrobe allowance, plus the use of a car. "Miss Maryland doesn't make much," she laughs. Every contestant here who doesn't win or place gets at least $5,000. And the experience, of course.

On the advice of her trainer, Amir drinks a gallon of water a day--but not while she's here, because she doesn't want to look bloated. Her diet is heavy on protein, oatmeal for carbs, and salad.

"I'm really craving a Ledo's pizza," she sighs. "I think I could eat a whole one myself."

On the Boardwalk

We're walking along the boardwalk. It's a warm afternoon. The usual strange collection of Atlantic City types is arrayed before us--the down-and-out bench sitters, the tour groups of elderly and Asian gamblers, the immigrants from all over the world who push people in chair taxis. The hotel casinos that front the water are huge and garish, interspersed with small shops selling cheap stuff and empty lots waiting to be developed.

"Can we go on the beach?" Marina asks.

"I don't want to get sand in my shoes," I say primly. "You can go."

"But I might be kidnapped by drug dealers like in the movie!"

"Where did you see 'Atlantic City'?"

"On TV."

Later, a boy on a bike rides by us.

"'Sup, cuties?" he shouts.

"Did you hear that?" I say. "He said cuties. Plural!"

Marina has ignored him. She's worried that she's missing her soccer game. "Mom, you are weird."

The Preliminaries

The Wednesday night preliminaries are our introduction to the new, hip production that is Miss America. To the mature ear, the techno music seems like loud microphone feedback, but Marina says it sounds like club music. The set looks like a giant Erector set to me, but it looks like an 'NSync concert to her. (She has not been to one, nor to a nightclub, but somehow she knows these things.)

The preliminaries are the first chance to see the contestants in action. For three nights the contestants are divided into three groups, and competitions are staged for swimsuit, evening gown and talent honors. The contestants also practice the opening of Saturday's show, where they will announce their names and platforms.

I find it strange when a woman in a bare-midriff, beaded dress announces she is devoted to the cause of elder abuse, or eating disorder awareness. But since 1989, when the platform requirement was inaugurated, it has become a key component of the This Is Not Just a Beauty Pageant ethos of the modern Miss America.

This year five contestants have picked some form of arts education as their platforms. Four picked mentoring, and three chose youth-related issues--smoking, empowerment, health. Breast cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, learning disorders, eating disorders--each has a potential spokeswoman onstage. The most unusual platform deals with deficient parenting--Miss New Hampshire's "attachment disorder in children."

Miss Oklahoma announces hers: "The Salvation Army!"

"The Salvation Army?" whispers Marina. "Looks like that's where she got her pants."

Miss California, Rita Ng, a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford who plans to become a pediatrician, wins the talent preliminary on Thursday with her rendition of Beethoven's Apassionata, Op. 57, No. 3. Miss Louisiana, Faith Jenkins, wins swimsuit, adding to her Tuesday talent win. Both of them also won other prizes--expect to see them in the Top 10. Miss Illinois and Miss Mississippi have also won preliminaries.

Expect also to see Miss Iowa, Theresa Uchytil, the one-handed baton twirler and campaigner for people with disabilities. Although we think she looks like a stern headmistress, her poise and posture are superb. The most articulate, hands down, is Miss New Jersey, Jill Horner, who batted back a question about what she'd learned in women's studies with a swift answer about Alice Paul: "The radical suffragist. . . . from 1923 till her death in 1977 she understood the journey is more important than the outcome."

Miss Colorado performed a ballet to a Christian rock song, and Miss Hawaii (also a swimsuit winner) did a hula. Miss North Carolina is a Native American, and Miss South Dakota goes to Harvard and plays the piano. And although contestants no longer have to wear heels with their bathing suits, most of them do. (Makes your legs look longer and thinner.)

By Thursday night a level of exhaustion is settling over the convention hall. Contestants are walking as if their feet hurt, and slathering on more makeup as they get less sleep. Yet they all profess to be having "a blast," as program co-host Donny Osmond puts it.

Just 15 Minutes

A few hours after we'd talked to Miss D.C., Marina declined to order a soda at dinner. She's been borrowing my lip gloss every 30 minutes and asking whether her hair looks all right.

I ask if she has a secret desire to be Miss America. Her career goal is to be a police detective or an actress. "No," she says. "I don't think I'm that pretty, and I don't have a talent. And I'm not enough of a businesswoman."

I protest that she is pretty enough, and she is talented. But no, she's really not interested.

It's really only 15 minutes of fame.

Whew.