Robin Ford sits on a sofa in her living room, hands nervously fumbling with the blue sweater draped over her orange leotard.

At first glance, she does not look like a dancer. A bit jittery; not serene and composed as dancers are imagined. But the lean teen-ager is a freshman at the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York, and the pride and joy of D.C.'S Ellington School of the Arts.

So, too, is her tall, slender friend Tammy Gibson, 19, who bumps into a kitchen chair and stumbles on the green carpet during an interview. She is a sophomore at Juilliard.

Both young dancers lose their teen-age awkwardness and undergo metamorphosis when asked to perform.

Demonstrating a pirouette in the center of her living room, Robin's expression changes from that of an animated 18-year-old to the concentrated mask of a dancer. Her body freezes as she focuses on a spot somewhere distant. A moment passes. Then she begins to spin.

Whirling like a smooth top, her face flashes from front to back and forward again in an instant, almost as if she had not moved.

Then all 5 feet 6 inches and 100 pounds becomes a shy teen-ager again.

The girls are from strikingly different backgrounds. Tammy grew up in her parents' home on upper 16th Street in Northwest Washington. Robin's mother lives in a low-income apartment building in far Northeast.

Tammy's training at Juillard -- which costs an estimated $10,000 a year, including an apartment and food -- is financed by her parents. Robin, whose mother is a retired data processor from the D.C. Police Department, has earned scholarships and is seeking a student loan to pay for her education.

Tammy's dance experience ranges from the Workshops for Careers in the Arts (which later became the Ellington School) to apprenticeship with the D.C. Repertory Dance Company. While with the company -- working under former dancer, now choreographer Michael Malone -- she traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, for the Lagos Dance Festival.

At 13, she spent a summer in New York with other D.C. dancers to study under black dancer-choreographer Arthur Mitchell.

Robin's experience includes work with the Washington Ballet, where she became the company's first black female dancer while still in high school. She also performed for the D.C. Recreation Department.

Both Robin and Tammy participated in City Dance in 1977 at the Warner Theater.

The dancers, both of whom attended D.C. public schools, are headed in different directions. Robin plans to become a classical ballerina and Tammy is moving into modern dance.

Robin does not want to perform for a black dance company, she said, because she wants worldwide recognition, and does not believe she can achieve it in a black company: "I was the only black dancer in the Washington Ballet company, and people would come up to me in the end and say how well I danced because they noticed me."

In contrast, Tammy has always admired Alvin Ailey's black dance troupe, and has one major goal -- to join that company: "The way I dance is suited to Ailey. I will just keep on auditioning until I make it."

LaVerne Reed, former dance instructor for Tammy and Robin both privately and in the D.C. school system, said Robin -- whom, she added, had just the right body for dance: "No behind" -- will be perfect for classical ballet. Tammy, who has the slender, muscular body of black dancer Judith Jamison, is completely suited to a modern dance company like Alvin Ailey's, Reed added.

Although classmates and friends, Tammy and Robin do not always see eye to eye. In fact, at times the two -- who have know each other since high school -- have acted like the main characters in the movie "The Turning Point," constantly competing with each other.

Reed says the competition is healthy: "Tammy, who has to work on her point (classical technique), will work harder because she knows Robin does it well. She will also work to lose weight because she knows Robin has a classic dancer's facility (body). And Robin will work on her modern dance technique because she knows Tammy is very good."

The competition between the two girls was so intense several years ago, however, that Reed called them together and gently scolded, "You are both going to make it to Julliard and you both come from the District, so you might as well put your differences aside."

When it comes to dedication, Reed, said, it is a tossup between the two girls. Neither has been late or absent from a dance class and both have suffered in their own way to make it.

Tammy continued dancing through the pain after tearing ligaments in her knee. She later lost 15 pounds and practiced for three months before her Juilliard audition.

Robin fought a weight problem early in her career, and struglled to get attention from instructors who doubted her talent.

When attending school in the bustling Big Apple, both girls (who share off-campus apartments with other roommates) say life consists of classes and practice, practice, practice. With their intense schedule of four hours of dance a day, five days a week, neither has a social life.

For a short while, Tammy said of her social life, "I wasted, some of my time with someone before I got back to my dancing."

One might expect such dancers would be center-stage at parties, but as Tammy put it, "I don't disco dance because I am a dancer and I always want to lead."

Tammy stretches and flexes her long slender legs during an interview, as her parents sit nearby intent on a reporter's every question.

Asked what it takes to be a good dancer, she paused a fraction of a second, but it was just long enough for her father, James O. Gibson, director for the D.C. Office of Planning and Development, to step in. Technical skill, he said.

How does Tammy cope with the prospect of stiff competition and an uncertain future? Her mother, Kathy Gibson, a secretary at American University, fielded that one in an instant -- self-confidence.

When Tammy finally supplied her own answers, she coolly talked about the cut-throat world of dance and how she plans to survive in it: "I have learned that even though there are some dancers who are better than I am, I have special qualities that are equally as good."