Benjie Healey, 8, popped on his tangerine swim goggles and slipped into Francis Pool like a seal slithering off a smooth rock.

His body, taut and arrow straight, tucked, turned a slow rolling somersault and uncoiled again like an opening flower.

Watching from poolside, his camp mates, mostly girls, murmered their approval.

Then Benjie piked skyward and disappeared under the surface like Arthur's sword.

"Almost perfect," coach Loriann Signori told him. "Just watch those toes."

"Cool," said Benjie, who had metamorphosed back into a wet child again. Panting and dog-paddling to the pool's edge, he begged Signori to let him give it another try without waiting his turn.

"You know the rules," she said firmly, signaling a clamoring trio of 10-year-old girls to begin.

These are the Oyster Pearls, 27 District youngsters ages 7 to 10 who practice weekday afternoons a sport made famous in the 1940s by movie star Esther Williams. The Pearls, of course, have never heard of her.

Still, as interest in synchronized swimming has grown over the years, it has attracted only a few boys or men, probably because Williams's famous swims in moonlit lagoons gave it a sensuous, feminine image.

Since 1984, when synchronized swimming became an Olympic event, a few men have started to participate.

Betty Watanabe, executive director of United States Synchronized Swimming Inc., the sport's national governing body, said more European than American men have taken it up, but U.S. Olympic rules say only women can compete.

The only competitive team in the District also has no males, but Signori, who coaches that team during the school year, has vowed to change that.

She began last summer by hiring two young men to help her teach synchronized swimming at the Oyster Summer Arts Camp, a private day camp based at Francis School in Northwest Washington. Signori is director of the camp. The male counselors encouraged the boy campers to participate and showed them that it wasn't a sissy thing to do, she said.

Benjie, a second-grader at John Eaton School, is one of the first boys to try it. This year he is one of seven. He and camp mate Alex Kapur, 9, are the stars, and are considering joining Signori's competitive team, also called the Oyster Pearls, this fall.

But there are more important issues on their minds just now. The team is practicing for a big exhibition in a few weeks. The Pearls will perform a synchronized medley before an audience of hundreds of other children from swim programs all over the city.

"It's a real high point for the kids," Signori said.

All 27 Pearls are in a whirl of preparation. A 7-year-old girl with thick pigtails, who just days before had learned to float on her back, clamored for Signori's evaluation of her "whirling tub," a fast spin in a tucked position.

Her arms pumping like pistons and her pigtails swirling behind her, the little girl twirled like a top near the water's surface.

"Loriann, did you see me?" she puffed. "Did you see me?"

The older girls had more restraint. The 9- and 10-year-olds moved through their routines with patrician serenity, holding their bodies as if they were suspended on wires.

They were also considerably harder on themselves.

"I'll never get it," said one who was struggling with a walk-over.

"Tummy up. Toes pointed," Signori coached.

Elizabeth Holman, an 11-year-old Lab School student, finned through her turn like a dolphin.

"That's the best one I've seen yet -- practically perfect," Signori said.

"Are you sure there's nothing wrong with it?" Elizabeth asked.

Benjie struggled with his ballet leg, a back-float maneuver that requires an extreme toe point.

"Pointing is really hard for me," he sighed. "But I'm sure I'll master it."

"Benjie's a go-getter," Signori said. "I really want him on my competition team."

"That's my ambition, if I can fit it in between Hebrew and piano lessons," he said. The team practices four nights a week with no excuses for less than perfect attendance.

It pays off, Signori said. Earlier this month, a trio from the team won a first place at the Regional Virginia Games in Roanoke. That was the end of competition for the year, but the team's seven members are working out with the campers and helping Signori prepare for the exhibition event.

Each day, there are two-hour practices with difficult decisions to make, such as which music to use. The girls want to swim to Madonna's "Vogue." The boys prefer the theme to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The choice of a team suit took the better part of two days, Signori said.

Synchronized swimming is an endurance sport that Watanabe says generally takes 15 years to master, requiring a runner's power and a dancer's grace.

At the end of each workout Signori leads breath-holding drills, because the more difficult routines require going without air for several minutes. She gives the children 100 points for making it across the pool without taking a breath.

"But today I'll give 1,000 points to anyone that adds a somersault in between," she said.

Benjie was the first to rise to the challenge. Then he did it again.

Signori gave him an extra 10 points.

"Wow, 2,010 points," said Benjie, whistling slow. "One small step for mankind, a giant step for Benjie."