In the world of modern dance, beneath the heady circle of Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, there are thousands of small, struggling troupes.

In Washington these include Cathy Paine and Friends, the Dance Place, McLean Ballet and half a dozen other precariously financed operations.

Then there is Contemporary Dancers of Alexandria (CODA), founded by city ballet teacher Hedi Pope, who taught such resident notables as Betty Ford and her daughter Susan. Pope's "dream come true"--a contemporary, repertory modern-dance company--is now in its third year and on its third artistic director. That's longevity in this business.

The dancers attribute the group's success and "old age" to the executive board. "They're one of the few groups I've danced for that thinks beyond the next performance," says Pier Stock, company manager and one of the eight women dancers. "They're even thinking about next year's performances."

Stock is not the only company member with a double role. Carol Anderson, studio director since CODA's beginning in 1978 and known as a pro at extracting money for her misunderstood art, choreographed one of the main pieces in the company's repertoire this year and dances in many productions. Ellen Gray Denker, the current artistic director, plays a supporting role in most of the works.

The other five women, all of whom make their living through dance, bring to the company backgrounds in ballet, jazz and various schools of modern dance, as well as plenty of experience with local dance troupes and choreographers. Some of the dancers teach in CODA's own school, while others teach at other dance schools, studios and recreation departments throughout the area.

In their performances, says Denker, "We are trying to concentrate on Washington-area choreographers, to give them a chance to show their work. We're also recycling some older works by New York people like Hannah Kahn."

One of the local choreographers being featured this year, with financial help from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, is former CODA dancer Martha Brim of Alexandria, who now teaches at Dance Downtown, a studio in the District. Her piece, "Faded Love," is an abstract number danced in hideous 1950s prom dresses to the music of country singer Patsy Cline.

The group also is premiering a number by free-lance choreographer Daniel West of the District, which is set to electronic music, and an expanded piece by its own Carol Anderson. "We want this to be a true repertory company, as opposed to a choreographer's company," says Denker, explaining the diversity in the program.

CODA's dancers are highly professional. Their lines and movements are executed with precision and personality. They are sensuous when they need to be sensuous, bratty when they're supposed to be, and always poised.

The group has these qualities despite many changes this year--new dancers, directors and works--and the fact that the dancers must weave rehearsal times into their busy schedules. Dancers say rehearsals are difficult to coordinate and that most pieces are "double-cast--so we can work with whoever shows up." The company rehearses daily in the weeks before a performance.

In addition to repertory performances, the group also performs in the Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Dumfries schools, an effort that gives CODA "some financial support and the chance to perform our rep pieces to new audiences," says Stock.

Audiences, gleaned from Alexandria regulars and "friends of board members," pay a large chunk of CODA's expenses, though it also receives some support from grants and in-kind services from the business community. "We get food for receptions, free printing, photography, things like that," says Stock.

On this comparatively affluent shoestring, CODA has expanded its membership from six to eight dancers, and plans to continue its emphasis on local talent. CODA's next performance will be at the Caroline A. Penney Auditorium, YWCA, 624 Ninth St. NW in the District, on April 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for students and senior citizens. For ticket information, call 638-2100. For more information on CODA, call 548-9123.