Three soloists in the American Ballet Theatre have more in common than a love for dance: they were all students at a local school, Maryland Youth Ballet of Bethesda.

Cheryl Yeager, 23, Peter Fonseca, also 23, and Susan Jaffe, 19, all were taught by Peter's mother, Tensia Fonseca, who started the ballet school in 1965 with Roy Gean, now director of the Bethesda Ballet School.

All three are soloists with the ABT, but Jaffe also has been ABT Director Mikhail Baryshnikov's partner. In story-book fashion, Jaffe made her debut a year ago as a last-minute replacement for principal dancer Gelsey Kirkland.

Though it often takes five years or more for dancers to be promoted to soloist, Jaffe earned that title in less than a year. Before joining the ABT she danced with American Ballet Theatre II, ABT's repertory company.

Yeager and Fonseca have danced as partners in several productions this season. Both became soloists this year, about five years after joining the ABT as eager 18-year-olds. Yeager was accepted into the troupe on her birthday and said it was the "best birthday present anybody ever gave" her.

Jaffe and Yeager attended Montgomery County schools. Jaffe graduated from Walter Johnson High School and Yeager graduated from Charles W. Woodward High School. Fonseca attended the Washington Academy of Ballet.

Tensia Fonseca, who now runs Maryland Young Ballet alone, has turned out a number of professionals, and each year about five of her students win scholarships to professional company schools.

A former dancer with the national ballet company of Costa Rica, Fonseca said that she was offered a job by the ABT many years ago but that she declined, preferring "to have children."

Peter, the youngest of her five sons, is the only one who followed in his mother's ballet steps professionally. Her second-youngest son, Paul, is interested in choreography and is helping with her latest production.

Peter set out on his ballet career only after debating whether he would take dance at all.

"He was born at the barre," Tensia Fonseca said. But Peter remembers the situation differently. "When I was eight or nine," he said, "I kept hoping the neighborhood kids wouldn't find out I was taking ballet." When he turned 10, "Mom told me either to get serious about dance or forget it."

The other students exchanged knowing glances at Peter's recollection. "I scream a lot," Tensia Fonseca admitted.

Yeager said the students appreciate their former teacher's manner: "It toughens us up, makes us stubborn. We want to succeed to please her."

"Mrs. Fonseca really pushed us to develop a healthy attitude and good habits," Jaffe agreed. "It's very dangerous to train a child wrong in ballet -- you make him accident-prone."

Fonseca, who has 200 students, said she prefers to get students in their early years -- 5, 6 or 7 -- so she can "get to know their bodies, their natures, their parents."

Students pay by the lesson, $3.50 for a class with other students and $6 for individual sessions.

Parents are expected to work at the school doing such tasks as building scenery and making, repairing and laundering costumes. Even so, the graduates said they sometimes saw more of Tensia Fonseca than of their own families. On some days, Yeager said, "We were there from 2 o'clock in the afternoon until 9 at night, and back again on weekends."

The students thought of their teacher as a second mother. Said Jaffe: "I remember when I was about 12, Mrs. Fonseca took me out to lunch and talked about life and what it was like to grow up. She didn't just care about how well turned-out we were. She cared about us as people."

Somewhere in the students' early teen years, said Fonseca, the young dancers become afraid. "They just begin to realize that they are good, they have talent, but they don't know if they have what it takes to make it."

When the students are about 16, "I take them to New York to try out for the scholarship programs (of ABT or the Joffrey Ballet). If they make it they get their confidence back again. Then, when the scholarship ends, they get that fear again, so you have to really work with them, counsel them."

It is her goal, Fonseca said, to place outstanding graduates in professional companies. She accomplishes this by "giving them the technique they need" and teaching them to "project and to deliver in a performance."

It is the latter part that sets them apart from others, graduates said. "We have the comforting confidence to make it on stage," Peter Fonseca explained.

"I've been performing since I was 10," Jaffe said. Though Jaffe's abrupt entry into ABT could have been unsettling, Tensia Fonseca said, "Susie handled (it) very well -- she was able to bear the strain."

"I cried for weeks," Jaffe said. "I kept thinking, 'Oh, if only I'd had one or two performances in the corps...'" It was Fonseca's instruction, Jaffe said, that taught her to "dance and be happy on stage," a description that matches the critics' acclaim of her performance this season.

"Every time my father drove me to the (Maryland Youth Ballet) school, I'd get a chill up my spine," Jaffe said. "It was like a fantasy."

"Isn't that funny?" Fonseca said. "That's exactly how I feel. It's a thrill just to see the building."

The Maryland Youth Ballet will perform "The Enchanted Clock," a holiday special choreographed by Tensia and Peter Fonseca, tonight at 8 o'clock, Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for youths, students and senior citizens. Performances will be held at Walter Johnson High School, 5400 Rock Spring Dr., Bethesda. Call 652-2232 for more information.