In a sense, the Arlington Dance Theatre is back where it started 25 years ago. The original group was a self-sustaining offshoot of the county's recreation department, intended to be an outlet for dancers who had outgrown the county's other offerings. Over the years, it grew to include a paid professional company, offered classes in ballet and jazz and developed an active in-schools program, the precursor of the Arlington schools' humanities program.

With Carmen Mathe as artistic director, said Jane Smallwood, cofounder and current president of the group, "we reached our artistic height; we danced at the Kennedy Center and went all over the community."

But by the late '70s, the group had overextended itself, she said, "and held fund-raisers that actually cost us money." The organization fell into debt, let the professional company go and turned the schools program over to the county schools.

"It took us two years to get out of debt," said Smallwood, explaining that the group has been paying its bills piecemeal out of earnings from its classes.

Last fall, however, there were auditions similar to those of 25 years ago to build a new "workshop company" for dancers in transition from amateur to professional status.

"Two of the chosen 20 have danced in a professional capacity, so I wouldn't call us amateur," said Richard Brown, one of the two artistic directors chosen to head the company. "Just say that, given the necessary amount of time, we will work toward the professional."

Brown was ballet master and choreographer for various small companies throughout his native Great Britain before joining the Alabama State Ballet in Birmingham. He came to Washington in 1970 and worked with the National Ballet until it folded in 1975. Since then he has since been associated with the McLean Ballet and the Arlington Youth Ballet.

Diane Fay, Brown's fellow director at Arlington Dance Theater, describes him as "a good balance to me: Richard is very strict and upright and I'm all sensitive." Brown brings a more classical approach to the group.

In one of the six short dances on the program for the dance company's debut Saturday--Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to Orchestra"--Brown has each dancer assume the role of a musical instrument. The brasses are dressed in yellow, the strings are in purple and the dancers become "musically educated" as they tune their ears to pick up the instruments' sounds, says Brown.

Color is also important in the pieces Fay has choreographed for this all-original show. In one work, a kind of West Side rumble between classical and jazz dancers, the classical types wear white and the jazz dancers wear black, while both groups perform the same steps in their own styles.

Diversity is important in this new group, according to Fay, who says the auditions were geared to finding dancers from varied backgrounds. With this membership, she says, "we can do everything a major company does, without the extremes."

Fay, a woman of intensity who continually reassures her dancers, spent five years with the Joffrey Ballet's junior company. She came to the Arlington group with great hopes for the audiences here. "They know how to appreciate the New York companies, but they're still not involved with their hometown companies. I hope to change that."

Companies such as this new one, Fay believes, can be of real service to the community by bringing dance to many more than the few who can afford Kennedy Center tickets. At the same time, the group is an outlet for local talent.

ADT hopes to expand its workshop company to 40 dancers and choreographers. (The members pay a fee for the privilege of being there.)

They would like to have a professional troupe again, "but we don't see that happening any time soon," said Smallwood, adding that the present arrangement is viewed as "a solid step forward, out of debt."

Arlington Dance Theatre Workshop Company presents "Divertissement" Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, 125 S. Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. Tickets are $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for children and senior citizens.

Dancers may audition for company membership Saturday, Feb. 6, at the Gunston Arts Center.

For further information on tickets or auditions, call Chris Belcher at 684-8000.