The dance year just concluding was exciting, but it was also marked by a sense of diminishment in volume and level of activity compared to the past -- a kind of continuing backlash from the recession. The 1984-85 season, however, appears to be holding its own. There are some alarming new contractions, but also some encouraging expansions, in period that continues to seem an era of readjustment and transition. The most conspicuous good news is that we'll be treated to a hefty number of "firsts."

The Kennedy Center's ballet series gets under way in December, with what has turned into a Serge Prokofiev marathon. Both the Joffrey Ballet, which arrives Dec. 5, and American Ballet Theatre, which follows on Dec. 18, are bringing new productions of Prokofiev's celebrated "Romeo and Juliet" score. The Joffrey is doing the John Cranko version; ABT the one by choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, recently named "artistic associate" by ABT. The juxtaposition should yield a fascinating comparison of approaches and merits.

The Prokofiev binge will continue when ABT closes its run with a restaging of Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of "Cinderella," which had its world premiere here last year and went on to become a box-office bonanza. Further down the pike, the San Francisco Ballet -- making its Kennedy Center debut in June -- will second the motion with Michael Smuin's version of the same Prokofiev score. (Smuin, word has recently come, has resigned as artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, but apparently he'll remain on friendly working terms with the troupe.)

The down side of the Kennedy Center series is the absence of the New York City Ballet (for scheduling reasons, it is said) -- a serious blow indeed -- and the further retrenchment of the ABT season from its former customary seven weeks, to last year's four, to the new season's three. On the brighter side are scheduled visits by the Dance Theatre of Harlem (February) with Arthur Mitchell's new "Bayou" interpretation of "Giselle"; and Ballet West, which will present a reconstruction of a lost August Bournonville ballet, the full-length "Abdallah."

We'll have to wait until March to see the long-awaited return to Washington of the seminal Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as a special option at Lisner Auditorium on the season's new Dance America series. But before then will come the Joyce Trisler Danscompany, the innovative Jazz Tap Ensemble, and the jet-propelled Molissa Fenley and Dancers, before the year's end, all at the Terrace Theater. Among the series' offerings in 1985 will be the welcome return of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (April, at the Opera House).

The Washington Ballet has restored a third set of Lisner performances to its roster of home town appearances, in a season that also embraces tours to South America, China and possibly Spain. Premieres by Choo San Goh and Matthew Diamond will be among the new choreographic wares. The company's annual "Nutcracker" will have new decor by Carl Michell, who designed, among other things, the "Stars and Stripes" that the Dance Theatre of Harlem performed at this year's summer Olympics.

The Washington troupe will be making its first appearances ever at the Kennedy Center (the Terrace Theater, for a March benefit) and the Tawes Theater at the University of Maryland. The company's prizewinning Bonnie Moore has left to join ABT, but among new dancers in this year's lineup will be Washington's Sandra Fortune, and Cynthia Anderson, formerly of the Joffrey Ballet.

The Dance Place continues to bolster its status as our off-Kennedy Center for contemporary dance. Its new series this fall (Friday and Saturday nights instead of Saturday and Sunday) will include, in addition to a solid assortment of Washington-based artists, such visiting attractions as the Limbs Dance Company from New Zealand, and the troupes of Marta Renzi, Risa Jaroslow, Muna Tseng, Bill Evans, Glenn-Lund, Beth Soll, Deborah Gladstein and Anna Leo, with events nearly every weekend from this month through July.

Particularly noteworthy among fall events are the "Black Dance '84" festival under the auspices of African Heritage, shifting its site to Cramton Auditorium this year (November); the Washington debut of Japan's startling modern dance troupe (a sensation at the Olympic Arts Festival) Sankai Juku (October); a visit by Kol Demama, an Israeli troupe led by Moshe Efrati on its first American tour, at the Terrace Theater (October); a solo performance by multimedia wizard Meredith Monk at the Hirshhorn Museum (November); and premieres at the Washington Project for the Arts by area choreographers Wendy Woodson (September) and Liz Lerman (October).

Washington groups offering series this fall include the Dance Exchange, which is moving its "Evenings of Exchange" performance-discussion series to new sites, including the Kennedy Center, and offering free admission; Improvisations Unlimited (based at the University of Maryland); Dance Arts Moving Arts (at the Church of the Epiphany); and the Jewish Community Center's Dance Ensemble. The Smithsonian Resident Associate Program will present dance events at Baird Auditorium. The downtown YWCA has eliminated its dance series (though its Penney Auditorium is still available for hire), but dance events will figure prominently in continuing performance series at the Pavilion at the Old Post Office, the National Theatre and Mount Vernon College.

Here's how the fall dance calendar shapes up: September

Lecture-demonstration by ABT dancers Amanda McKerrow, John Gardner, Cheryl Yeager and Peter Fonseca, Baird Auditorium, Sept. 15; Raquel Pena Spanish Dance Company, Glen Echo Park, Sept. 16; "A Disappearance," full-length movement/theater work by Wendy Woodson and Achim Nowak, WPA, Sept. 20-23; Joyce Trisler Danscompany, opening the Dance America series with a world premiere by director Milton Myers, Terrace Theater, Sept. 20-22; season preview program by area artists, Dance Place, Sept. 21-22; Maria Benitez Spanish Dance Company, Terrace Theater, Sept. 25-27; Diane Floyd and Saturday Company, Glen Echo Park, Sept. 29-30; Styrian Fiddle Dancers, Baird Auditorium, Sept. 29; Prochotsky Ballet Theater, Glen Echo Park, Sept. 30. October

Liz Lerman, premiere of "Docudance '84" and other works, WPA, Oct. 6-7; Sankai Juku from Japan, outdoor performance at National Theatre, Oct. 10, full performances Warner Theater, Oct. 12-13; Limbs Dance Company, opening Dance Place series, Dance Place, Oct. 12-13; Raquel Pena Spanish Dance Company, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Oct. 13; Jazz Tap Ensemble, Dance America series, Terrace Theater, Oct. 18-20; Bill T. Jones, dancer-choreographer, Montgomery College, Oct. 18-20; Kaze-No-Ko, dance-mime-acrobat troupe from Japan, Baird Auditorium, Oct. 18; Claudia Murphey Dance Company, Dance Place, Oct. 19-20; Washington Ballet, Lisner Auditorium, Oct. 24-27; Marta Renzi and Dancers, Dance Place, Oct. 26-27; Deaf Dimensions, Jewish Community Center, Oct. 27-28; "El Negro in El Peru," dance-poetry-music piece by Victoria Santa Cruz, Baird Auditorium, Oct. 28; Kol Demama, Terrace Theater, gala opening, Oct. 29, and daytime lecture-demonstration and public performance, Oct. 30. November

Risa Jaroslow, Dance Place, Nov. 2-3; Molissa Fenley and Dancers, Dance America series, Terrace Theater, Nov. 8-9; Raquel Pena ; Meredith Monk solo performance, Hirshhorn Museum, Nov. 13; University of Maryland dance faculty concert, Studio EE, Nov. 15-18; George Washington University faculty/student concert, with premiere by Daniel McCusker, Marvin Theater, Nov. 15-18; "Black Dance '84" festival, with African Heritage and other local, national and international African dance groups, Cramton Auditorium, Nov. 16-17; Dance Arts Moving Arts program, featuring premieres by area choreographers, Church of the Epiphany, Nov. 16-18; Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Dance Place, Nov. 16-17; George Mason University fall dance concert, including work by guest choreographer Nina Wiener, Harris Theatre, Nov. 29-Dec. 1; Evening of Exchange program on theme of women in the arts, with Blondell Cummings and other guest artists, Mount Vernon College, Nov. 30; Dance Arts Moving Arts program, new choreography, Church of the Epiphany, Nov. 30-Dec. 2; Jan Taylor Dance Theatre, Dance Place, Nov. 30-Dec. 1. December

Center Dance Ensemble, three premieres by Frances Cohen and other repertory, Jewish Community Center, Dec. 1-2; Joffrey Ballet, featuring John Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet," an all-Ashton program and other repertory, Kennedy Center Opera House, Dec. 5-16; Improvisations Unlimited, with new work by guest choreographer Jeff Duncan, Studio EE, Dec. 6-9; Lynda Gattozzi/Rosemary Nolen Dance Company, Dance Place, Dec. 7-8; Joy of Motion Performing Company in "Spectrum," by resident and guest choreographers, Church of the Epiphany, Dec. 7-9; Maryland Dance Theater, modern dance repertory troupe, Marvin Theater, Dec. 11; Washington Ballet, "Nutcracker," new production, Lisner Auditorium, Dec. 13-29; Student/Faculty concert, Dance Place, Dec. 14-15; American Ballet Theatre, featuring Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," Mikhail Baryshnikov's "Cinderella," and new and old repertory, Kennedy Center Opera House, Dec. 18-Jan. 6. The New Year

The Kennedy Center ballet series will include the Dance Theatre of Harlem (February), Ballet West (April), and the San Francisco Ballet (June). The Dance America series continues (the Dance Theatre of Harlem is also on this series) with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (March, as a special option) and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (April). The Washington Ballet will perform in Lisner in February and April, as well as a debut at Tawes Theater in February, a benefit at the Terrace Theater in March, and a three-week tour of China in May. The Dance Place series continues through July 20. Other continuing series include those under the banner of the Dance Exchange (a performance series at Sidwell Friends School as well as the Evenings of Exchange at various sites), Dance Arts Moving Arts, the Jewish Community Center.

In February especially notable events include a second Choreographers' Showcase, with adjudicated cash awards, sponsored by the Jewish Community Center; a three-day Joy of Motion festival of dance and music improvisation; and the premiere of a work by Dan Wagoner in performances by Improvisations Unlimited. In March, the American College Dance Festival Association will hold its Mid-Atlantic regional festival in this area for the first time, at the completely refurbished Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, launching four nights of performances with a special appearance by the David Gordon Pick-Up Company, one of the most exciting contemporary dance companies around; New York's Charles Moulton Dance Company will make its area debut in a single performance at George Mason University; university residencies will culminate in performances of work by guest choreographers Jan Van Dyke (at George Washington University) and Kei Takei (George Mason University); and the Polish folk troupe Mazowsze will pay a return visit to the Kennedy Center.

In May, Lisner Auditorium will be the site for a music-laser-dance collaboration with choreographer Maida Withers, artist Rockne Krebs, and composer Bob Boilen, with the Dance Construction Company; and the 3rd National College Dance Festival will take place at a yet undetermined theater. Also this spring, the Smithsonian will mount a new edition of last year's "Salute to Washington Dance."