The bright-eyed blonde slides onto the stool, orders a beer and plants it on the bar. She's done exactly the wrong thing. Here at Cafe Lautrec in Adams-Morgan, the bar belongs to Johne Forges.

"You gonna have to hold that, baby, 'cause I'm gonna be flyin' up here," Forges warns. Wearing a crisp white shirt and black trousers, he's back by the cash register warming up, a faint sweet clicking coming from his feet. He's not a tall man, but when he jumps up on the bar -- a narrow plank, scarred and gouged like the side of an old shed -- he looms.

He cues the musicians, crammed against the wall just a few feet away, bows his head, and suddenly all you see are the tips of his toes, elegantly housed in tan-and-white wingtip tap shoes, and you hear a smack like a firecracker that seems to explode all around you. Forges is dancing along the bar, and the drummer is hurrying to keep up with him. But now you're not hearing drums, you're not even hearing the jackhammer footwork -- you're hearing the pounding of your own pulse.

Let's get one thing straight: Show tap (think "A Chorus Line" and the Rockettes) is out. No one dances in high heels anymore. Rhythm tap -- a more improvisational laying down of complex currents of beats -- is in. And power tap -- picture young blood Savion Glover, back hunched, feet hitting like the pistons in a race car -- is even hotter.

If you think tap is about little girls in party dresses and beribboned Mary Janes, or vaudevillians in blackface, or tuxedos and canes, you ain't seen nothing lately. And you sure haven't seen it performed locally. After a decades-long slumber, tap has had a renaissance that has resulted in a stunning array of tap schools and companies -- and some powerhouse dancers.

But to understand how far the art form has come, it helps to know something about its complicated history -- one fraught with setbacks and misunderstanding. Tap is a truly American art, devised on these shores, it is believed, by slaves as a way of communicating with one another after their drums were confiscated by white slaveholders. It's thought that the dance got its originally flat-footed, compact and nonexpansive style from the fact that early "tappers" were wearing shackles. (The great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson -- born in Richmond in 1878 -- changed the way tap looked by tapping on the balls of his feet, making him a lighter and more mobile dancer.)

Tap was ultimately shaped in the American melting pot. By the early 1900s, with the added influence of English clogging and Irish and Scottish step dancing, tap had become established as an American art form. It was the most popular style of dancing in the nation, and tap acts -- black and white -- became all the rage in minstrel shows, nightclubs, "talking pictures" and, of course, vaudeville. And Washington -- known then as now for its black middle class -- was one of the hottest spots on the black vaudeville circuit, with artists performing at the now-vacant Howard Theater.

The increasingly complex and syncopated rhythms of the Jazz Age fed the tap craze, as American ears became attuned to the percussive intricacies of the music and tap dancers strove to incorporate and then expand upon them in their footwork. In the '30s and '40s, hoofers like Charles "Honi" Coles, Cholly Atkins, Baltimore-born Baby Lawrence and Steve Condos became household names. So, too, did the enduring legends Shirley Temple (who danced with Bojangles Robinson in four films -- the first interracial pair in screen history) and, of course, Fred and Ginger.

Some blame the eventual decline of tap on the nation's changing taste in music -- to the soft-paced big-band sounds and, worse, the rhythmically simplistic rock-and-roll of the '50s and '60s. Folks lost their yen for polyrhythms and multilayered beats. Another blow to tap was the entertainment tax of World War II -- clubs with live acts had to ante up for the war effort, and many couldn't afford to. They shut down and never reopened. The tappers had nowhere to go.

Tap all but vanished from the entertainment world, and seemed to linger in the collective memory only as an old-fashioned, commercial and even debasing frivolity, tippy-tappy pap that just couldn't be taken seriously. The New Tap

"When I first started out," recalls New Orleans native Forges (pronounced For-ZHAY), who's been dancing on the bar at Cafe Lautrec for 15 years, "blacks would say I was Uncle Tomming,' or giving our art form away. It was like, Brother, why you going into those clubs for the white people?' Tap had a yassah, boss' connotation to it. I'd go to parties and it'd be like being on a plantation." During the 1930s, Shirley Temple pictures were credited with filling tap studios with young hopefuls; in the 1980s movies played a similar role in reigniting interest in the art form. Francis Coppola's 1984 "The Cotton Club" (starring Gregory and Maurice Hines) started tap on its surge, followed by "White Nights" a year later (with Gregory Hines and ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov). "Baryshnikov embraced {tap} in White Nights,' and we became hip and chic," says Forges. Then, in 1989, came "Tap," featuring Gregory Hines again, with teenage sensation Savion Glover, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of master tappers.

Tappers began emerging from the woodwork, with innovators like Brenda Bufalino -- who went on to found the American Tap Dance Orchestra -- presenting rhythm tap in new formats with intricate footwork, moving away from the choreographed Broadway style of ensemble dancing.

About the same time, tap was being rediscovered and legitimized in the modern dance community. In 1986 the Colorado Dance Festival, under the directorship of Marda Kirn (who calls herself "unforgivably obsessed with tap"), together with the efforts of Sali Ann Kriegsman (wife of Washington Post dance critic Alan Kriegsman and now executive director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival), hosted a two-week symposium on tap -- the first ever of its kind. Leading dancers -- Coles, Condos, Jimmy Slyde and Gregory Hines, among others -- were pulled in to perform and teach; the festival attracted students from around the world.

"It was a jump-start for the art form," says Kirn. "It got people doing it, watching it and talking about it."

In 1988, a similarly well-received festival was initiated in Boston by Jeremy Alliger, artistic director of the presenting organization Dance Umbrella.

"It's been accessible, it's seen again, it's considered hip again," observes Alliger. Tap has now moved away from "those dark decades when people didn't want their kids to tap because it was a look back to a history people didn't want to remember -- blackface and vaudeville." Local Talent

Washington wasn't far behind in getting into the tap act. Though its heyday as a focal point for vaudeville tours has been all but forgotten, a growing group of tap enthusiasts has once again made the D.C. area a hotbed of talent. The future of tap may lie with such homegrown talents as Baakari Wilder and Vincent Bingham, both now starring with Glover in the critically acclaimed tap musical "Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk: A Tap/Rap Discourse on the Staying Power of the Beat," which opened last month at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater. Then there's Joe Webb, the 17-year-old who was courted by both the international tour of Broadway's "Black and Blue" and "Bring In da Noise" but has put a professional career on hold until he finishes school. For now, Webb is coaching local 6-year-old prodigy Cartier Williams, who recently won the amateur night competition at Harlem's Apollo Theatre.

In 1991, in response to the growing interest in tap, the Washington Performing Arts Society in collaboration with Dance Place launched Percussive City Dance, a celebration of all forms of percussive dance including tap. (The festival was the brainchild of devoted hoofer Eileen Carson, founder of Annapolis-based Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble.) The WPAS brought Savion Glover down to teach and choreograph young students ages 11 to 17 -- among them Wilder, Bingham and Webb -- which became "Savion Glover's D.C. Crew," a prominent fixture of the festival until funding ran out in 1993.

Dance Place took over the reins of the event last year. This year's festival runs Friday through Sunday and features St. Louis artist Robert Reed and local tap groups Center Stage Dancers, Davis Center Dancers and Palmer Park Dancers, as well as soloists Toni Lombre -- who has her own school and troupe, Taps & Company -- teen whiz Noble Potts and the pint-size Williams.

"There was a real growth in the local tap community and in audience interest," says Dance Place founder-director Carla Perlo. "It all came together in my mind that this was the time that we needed to institute our own local festival."

Perlo produced the first couple of festivals herself, but starting last year she brought in Carol Vaughn as director.

Vaughn's name is spoken with uncommon reverence in both local and national tap circles. She and her advocacy group, Tap America Project, had the ambition and organizational skills necessary to convince Congress to pass legislation marking May 25 -- the birthday of the legendary Bojangles Robinson -- as National Tap Dance Day. It is now celebrated in 15 states and nine countries.

"By golly, there ought to be a law to make everyone love tap dancing," proclaimed a key supporter, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), at the time.

Vaughn, who teaches at several local schools, is a self-described "tap fanatic," and is nothing if not nervy: In 1993, to raise money for an event in observance of National Tap Dance Day she tapped down all 897 steps of the Washington Monument. She dubbed the stunt "I Ain't A'Fred A'Stairs" and raised close to $3,000. The National Park Service, however, was not impressed; Vaughn had been refused official permission and as a result, "there were three paddy wagons waiting for me on the street," she recalls. She escaped arrest by fading into the crowd of tourists.

Now she's working on getting Robinson on a postage stamp.

In may take Vaughn a while to achieve this -- but in the meantime she presides over Washington's tap revival. Vaughn counts 45 tap programs in the area. There are professionally geared schools and youth groups that have produced talents like Wilder, Bingham and Webb, and senior citizen organizations like Sixty Karats. There are even touring companies, like the National Tap Ensemble headed by Chris Belliou, a French tap freak who has been instrumental in bringing to local stages such old-time hoofers as LaVaughn Robinson and James "Buster" Brown. And there are programs where those of any age infected by the tap bug can find relief with a pair of metal-tipped oxfords and a scarred wood floor.

Toni Lombre's Taps & Company studio is housed in the Stables Arts Center on Eighth Street NW, just down the hall from the only other dance tenant, the KanKouran West African Dance Company. You can hear KanKouran's drumming in the elevator, and the force of it smacks you like a sucker punch when you arrive on the second floor. The door to Taps & Company is wide open, and inside, a half-dozen members of Lombre's adult company are rehearsing for a February concert at Dance Place.

"Five six seven eight: shuffle leap, shuffle leap, tap tap step, deega dah deega dah deega dah DAH!" shouts Lombre. There's no music playing (save the drumming); over and over she counts to eight and snaps her fingers, which seems like a useless exercise except that the women are actually following her, the thunder of their taps mingling with the drums to create a cacophony that just about drives a visitor from the room. (When asked later how she can possibly hear herself think, Lombre looks surprised and says, "What drumming? I don't even hear it.")

No fishnet stockings here. These women are dressed for a workout, stained with sweat. Over and over they thunder to the left, thunder to the right, thunder to the corners. The room is damp and warm.

"It's like breathing -- I need to do it," says 25-year-old Heidi Schultz. Her head is shaved on the sides; she has a shock of blond hair in front and several whiplike braids streaming from the top of her head. "I tap in the grocery store while I'm waiting in line."

Offers Helen Jackson, a statuesque woman in her forties: "I've just buried myself in tap. . . . It's the rhythmic beat and the freedom of movement, and the ability to make music without music."

"People fail to realize that tappers are musicians," adds Lombre, explaining her preference for a cappella tapping, for which her group is known. "It's important to get the rhythm and the steps first; the music comes later." In Their Soles

In their Takoma Park, D.C., studio ("Knock on Wood"), directors Yvonne Edwards and Renee Kreithen expound upon the art of rhythm tap.

Explains Edwards: "Rhythm tap is from the heart. It's what you feel in here" -- she thumps her chest -- "and it comes out in your feet."

Kreithen interjects: "It's the expression of your s-o-u-l through your s-o-l-e-s."

The two women -- Kreithen in her forties and Edwards an unbelievable sixtysomething -- have had their studio for only a year. Previously they taught at various other schools and focused on their teen dance company, Tappers With Attitude, of which Baakari Wilder was the centerpiece. Now their classes are going so well they've acquired "the tap dancer's dream," as Kreithen puts it: a state-of-the-art portable maple dance floor.

(You can't underestimate the importance of a proper floor to a tapper: Anything other than wood deadens the sound, but most theaters with wood-floored stages don't want tappers on them. Vaughn maintains it's the reason there's not more tap to be seen in this city.)

The two women, mugging for a photographer, are a vaudeville act unto themselves. As they sit side by side lacing their chunky, thick-heeled tap shoes, Kreithen points out that there are "more than 100 years' worth of feet in this shot."

"I can be ever so tired and ever so weary, but {tap dancing} releases a lot of tension," Edwards is saying. "Then afterward the pain comes back, the arthritis starts again and the glasses go back on -- but this is your world."

"In ballet you're judged by your physical prowess, and that doesn't last that long," adds Kreithen. "But in tap, you're like a fine wine; you age gracefully. Beautiful rhythms have no age limits." CAPTION: Tap dancing: "The expression of your s-o-u-l through your s-o-l-e-s." CAPTION: Tapping the light fantastic: Rehearsal at Taps & Company studio in Northwest Washington. CAPTION: On tap for the past 15 years at the Cafe Lautrec bar: John Forges.