In black leotard, white painter's pants, a suede jacket and flat leather shoes, Kathy Crouch doesn't look as if she can be easily transformed into a sequined and feathery circus showgirl.

Even Crouch's pen pal, a showgirl with the circus Crouch has joined - the legendary Ringing Brothers - can't understand why someone with a master's degress would be interested in this line of work.

"She said she could't figure out why, with all my recognized education, I would be going to circus, "Crouch said.

But Crouch's friends take a different view.

"All my friends can't understand why I don't just go to the circus instead of school."

If everyone else is perplexed, or at least excited, about how and why 21-year-old Crouch got to the circus, Crouch is not. She is dancing all the way.

In fact, Crouch, a student in dance at George Washington University, joined the circus as part of her master's degress program.

"It really hasn't hit me," she said. "I never thought that Kathy Crouch from Kensington would ever do anything with dance professionally! I just like to dance."

In the midst of finishing dance scores and term papers, Crouch is training to become a circus showgirl at the Ringling Brothers school in Venice, Florida, near Sarasota.

And, yes, she does have to learn to ride an elephant.

"I'm having nightmares about getting on the trunk and not being able to get off," she said, laughing.

She knows very little about the circus. "I hate to tell you this," she recalls having to tell Ringling Brothers. "I haven't been to the circus in so long." (She estimates her last trip may have been in junior or senior high).

Fortunately, the people at Ringling Brothers have been helpful.

They've told her she will be doing Broadway jazz, and her pen pal advised her to bring only a meager supply of clothes, ones she can easily fold into drawers in the cramped quarters of a circus train. (Shades of "The Greatest Show on Earth.")

For the first four weeks of training, Crouch will be paid $85 a week plus room. The first four weeks of the show, her probationary period, she will earn $185 a week. After that, if she passes muster, her salary will be $215 a week. "That's better than a GS-5," she said, her rating in her previous part-time clerical job at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Crouch is no more nonplussed about her circus job than she was about the audition for it, which was nothing more than a class assignment from Lois Henry, Crouch's dance teacher at St. Leo College in St. Leo, Florida.

"To get some professionalism, lois thought it would be a good idea to audition for dancing," Crouch said, So all the dance majors piled into cars and drove off to audition for Ringling Brothers at Circus World in Haynes City, Florida.

They were ushered into the back of a performance arena and later onto the stage in a line of about 100 auditioners. People were watching, but Crouch said she wasn't paying much attention. "I knew I'd never get in."

She performed the ballet and modern dance routines the auditioners were taught. "I was surprised. they were harder than I thought they would be," said Crouch whose repertoire includes ballet, tap, jazz, and modern dance.

The audition dragged on. Fingers were pointed at people: "You stay, you lose some weight and come back next year . . ." Cuts were made, more routines were taught, the bleachers filled with clowns waiting to warm up for showtime, and Crouch was just impatient.

"I kept thinking, 'When are they going to cut me, my friends want to go back now.'" But she wound up with several others who weren't cut.

That was October of 1976, and Crouch was too busy trying to finish college in three years at St. Leo to stop and 'run off' with the circus. But last July, when she decided she needed more performance experience before she could open a dance studio of her own, she phoned Ken Feld, vice president of Ringling Brothers. Not only did the Ringling circus remember her, they said they would like to have her as one of their five new showgirls.

So last year, Crouch approached three colleges about using her year of circus experience for masters degress credit. American University and Florida State weren't very encouraging. George Washington University jumped at the idea.

"They said, 'Great, that's field experience,'" Crouch recalled. To earn the credit, she must keep a daily journal and make a movie of the whole rehearsing-performing experience.

What Crouch is really looking forward to is performing again. A knee injury in February prevented her from dancing in the St. Leo spring dance concert tour, which she had done the previous two years.

"Dance class is like cooking all day, and you never get to eat," Crouch said. "After three months, I'm starving to perform!"