The eight women swished daintily across the stage dressed in pastel evening gowns, high formal heels and brave, lipstick-covered smiles. At the end of the three-hour ordeal of strutting and singing, the curtain dropped and the row of Solomons retired. Soon the month of rehearsal and three hours of anxiety would be vindicated with a crown, a bouquet and the title of Miss Howard University.

The queen's pageant, a decades-old celebration of fall and football, was renewed Monday night at Howard's Crampton Auditorium. Of the city's major universities, Howard is the only one to still hold an elaborate homecoming and to select a queen each year.

At Howard, the tradition commands special devotion. In most schools a queen reigns with her beauty and popularity alone, but as perhaps befits the special consciousness of a black univeristy, Miss Howard was asked to shoulder a heavy load of special and sometimes conflicting images.

The theme for this year's pageant, said organizer Karen Giles, "was a queen's beauty seen in black women." "A queen represents the campus," Giles explained, "and she has to be diverse enough to represent the beauty, poise and posture of all the women of the campus."

The audience seemed to bear out Giles's claim, since about half of the students packed into the auditorium were women. Questions of sexism were dismissed:

After all, they're not parading around in bathing suits." said senior Sandra Davy. And many women shared the opinion of freshman Sheryl Moore, who liked "the way they project a positive image of the black woman. Nobody else goes around saying stuff like that."

The competition opened with a presentation describing "the Royal Queens of Our Heritage," in the glowing mystical style of Jean Toomer. Wrapped in light sari-like sheets and bathed in safron-colored light, the Misses School of Business Administration recited snatches of history of famous Africans like Cleopatra and Nefertiti.

Years ago, the homecoming queen was known as Miss Gridiron, and rather than the Nile, she ruled over the rites of the football "classic." Howard's campus newspaper, the Hilltop, billed the annual rivalry between Howard and Lincoln as "the greatest confrontation in Negro Intercollegiate Football."

By 1966, students demanded a queen who wore an afro and who demonstrated a commitment to principles of nationalism. Miss Howard 1980 forged an uneasy truce between the demands of tradition and those of relevance; she wore a diamond tiara on a head of relaxed curls, but she posed beneath the stage prop silhouette of a woman with a huge, natural hairstyle.

The duality seeped into the talent competition. Miss School of Communications Michelle Price Performed a dramatic rendition of five original poems with a heavy emphasis on relating the race's "suppression, degradation and oppression" at the hands of whites to a silent audience.

Dressed in her tight black leotard, she concluded: "I am the black woman, the most beautiful thing on this earth," to an explosion of applause. Miss Human Ecology, Abimbola Ajayi recited a poem which she said was based on an African custom. Her English pronunciation was labored and the audience booed. "If anyone was up there and the crowd didn't like it, they'd yell," said freshman Kirkland Grain, by way of explanation. "If they're good, they're good; if they're not, they'll yell."

Cathy Shepard of the School of Engineering wowed the audience with an upbeat mini-fashion show of her own designs; she didn't say "black" once, but the audience climbed into the seats to give her a standing ovation.

"Their mentality is young," said Yohannie Shambourger, a third-year graduate student n education, of the audience's hooting at a contestant's error. "This is where everybody gets out their frustrations. Wait till you see the talent show," he added. "They'll eat the people alive."

By 10 p.m., the judges were ready, and last year's Miss Howard poised herself near the winner's archway to crown her successor. The winner was Miss Engineering -- Cathy Shepard.

"She's an A-student, plays clarinet, sings, dances, designs clothes and has a sense of humor," said the winner's jubilant former roommates. Was it all worth it? "Yes, yes it was worth it!," said the first runner-up, Miss School of Pharmacy Donna Hubbard. "It's an accomplishment. You feel good if you can stand up in front of a Howard crowd."