At age 40, Steve Johnson is not able to comprehend fully a high school-level text. Nevertheless, he is devoting his life to helping learning-disabled children overcome their weaknesses through the thing he says he knows best: dancing.

For 10 years, Johnson, who heads the dance department at the Lab School of Washington in Northwest, has taught dance techniques to more than 170 students as part of their educational, psychological and physical development.

"What he {Steve} is doing is showing that the arts are not frills, and not just developing muscles of a child from a physical standpoint . . . . He is trying to accomplish academic skills as well," said Sally Smith, principal and founder of the private school at 4759 Reservoir Rd. NW. Johnson is one of 50 staff instructors and six occupational therapists who are trained in various areas of special education.

"The more you help organize the body, the more you get a chance to organize the mind," Smith said. "These kids have problems with order and sequence, and dance helps the underlying process of connecting music, sound and motion. When we first started the dance department as part of the curriculum, many of the parents were laughing. But they're not laughing now."

With two assistants, Johnson coordinates daily classes in gymnastics, modeling techniques, jazz, martial arts and break dancing. Routines are designed to meet the needs of each student as determined by the individual educational program.

The instructors and therapists, by watching the students in choreographed routines, can monitor their progress in organization of thought, spatial relationships, rhythm and timing. Smith, who heads the graduate school of learning disabilities at American University, said dancing enhances development of the central nervous system, making that art form "educational, therapeutic and recreational," thus meeting the goals of the learning program.

"I like the hands-on experience that these children get in the arts program," said Linda Dolkos, whose 15-year-old son Todd attends the school. "The knowledge they get through participation is important, because the fact is that they are learning by doing."

Recalling his own experiences as a learning-disabled child, Johnson said he received no special attention because his family did not recognize that he had a learning deficiency. "You were either labeled as retarded or just not applying yourself," Johnson said. When his teachers began to point out several academic weaknesses, he said, his father replied that all Steve needed was discipline.

But Johnson's learning problems persisted. "I could read material but couldn't comprehend it," he said. "I graduated from high school by the skin of my teeth because I was able to use my strong visual skills, which got me through. Even today, I can dance all night, but at the third page of a book, I'm asleep."

After high school, Johnson was accepted into Hampton Institute in Virginia as a premed major, remaining there for five years before transferring to American University to study dance.

"I didn't do well in subjects that required reading and writing a lot, but in biology, most of it is memory so I didn't have any problems with that," he said.

Over the years, Johnson said, he has tried "every profession possible," but in each situation returned to dancing to supplement his income and help pay for college.

After obtaining his bachelor's degree in dance from American University, Johnson began taking modern/jazz dance classes from Washington choreographer Erica Thiemy. As a member of her company, he performed several lead roles in stage and television productions. "She believed in me and gave me a chance to express my talents professionally," he said.

Since that time, Johnson has been a dance therapist at the Center for Aging in the District, director of dance at the Washington Community School of Music, and artist in residence for the D.C. public schools and Commission on Arts and Humanities. He also has directed an arts education workshop at the Kennedy Center and has given numerous lectures and seminars on arts and the learning-disabled.

Johnson carries the dual responsibility of instructor and parent of two learning-disabled children. His youngest son, Brian, was enrolled into the Lab School after a court case against the D.C. public school system alleged that the facilities the District provided under special education were inadequate.

Winning the case, Johnson received $10,000 in annual tuition to send his son to the Lab School through Public Law 94-142. The law says local governments must provide funding for the education of children diagnosed as handicapped or mentally retarded if the facilities available through the public school system are found inadequate. About half the Lab School's students receive tuition under the law.

Johnson said that when grading papers and submitting written evaluations, he still is faced with the challenge of basic reading and comprehension. "But my motivation is seeing these kids make progress every day. I watch them and I see when they leave my class they're not the same people."

Dance classes are being offered to learning-disabled children this summer, during the school's 20th summer session, which began Monday.

"There was always one person who believed in me and helped me, and I feel obligated to do the same thing for these kids," Johnson said.

"When I see a parent with a child that I can tell is learning-disabled, I immediately stop them and tell them what they can do. These kids should not be perceived as bad seeds. They need to know that someone cares," he said. "I try to teach them to be winners, but it's up to the parents and the school to reach out and help, and tell these kids that they can be a success in the world, and not a failure."

CAPTION:Lab School Dance Director Steve Johnson helps pupil Erika Johnson get a head start on gymnastics and learning.

CAPTION:Johnson is held up by son Brian in a body sculpture.