The teenage dance group was rehearsing for its first public performance when choreographer Roberta Rothstein sat the students down in a circle to brainstorm for a story line for a new routine.

"A politician is being blackmailed by a pipehead," blurted 13-year-old Ranita.

"And the politician told the drug dealer to get rid of {the pipehead}, because he was getting too greedy," she continued to the nodding approval of the others. "And a husband and wife are the witnesses."

Not the stuff of Baryshnikov or Balanchine, perhaps, but the sad truth of everyday life for these young dancers, who all live at the Temporary Living Community shelter on Park Street NW.

By converting the grim tale into a routine, Rothstein will teach them another lesson about dance as a medium of expression as well as a performing art. That is the mission of Dance It Out, a year-old program created by Rothstein and funded by a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts.

For 10 weeks last spring and another 10 this fall, Rothstein has worked to unite a group of fiercely independent, often hostile homeless teens into a cohesive dance and support group. Next year, she will continue the classes under a renewed city grant.

"Does this solve their problems? No," Rothstein said. "But my feeling is that there is some positive effect. {Alone} it is not enough, but hopefully, working with other programs, it will make a difference."

The Living Stage Theatre Co., a social outreach program of Arena Stage and other cultural groups, also works to bring arts education to disadvantaged young people in the city. But only Rothstein, a counselor at the Center for Child Protection and Family Support, has fused dance and her training as a social worker into a single therapeutic approach.

"That's a positive, we feel, because she's able to understand some of the problems these children have encountered," said Deborah Baker, director of the Temporary Living Community shelter for homeless families. "The parents seem to be very, very happy with it . . . She gives the children a sense of hope and a sense of being someone."

Every Thursday and Saturday, Rothstein, 39, arrives on Park Street with a huge cassette player and dance tapes. Her first job is to locate her charges among those hanging out on the trash-lined street in front of the shelter, the smoke-filled arcade down the street and the dingy coin laundry next door. Then she entreats them to come and dance with her.

The transient nature of their lives means that different youngsters show up for Rothstein's classes each week. And the participants, who have been shuttled between relatives and shelters most of their lives, often have limited attention spans.

Last Saturday, 14-year-old Nicole, one of Rothstein's most enthusiastic students, was caring for a shelter resident's babies when class time arrived.

Tony, also 14, a talented dancer with boundless energy, could not come because he had just landed a job at Hardee's and needed to work. Evelyn, 12, said she would rather play video games and watch the men in the arcade play pool than join the rehearsal. And Ranita, a bright youngster who told Rothstein two weeks earlier that she dreams of being a lawyer, had decided she was no longer interested.

"Being a lawyer means following through even after the newness of things wears off," Rothstein told her. "If you sit back or you don't jump in or you don't try, then life will pass you by."

But Ranita was adamant, and Rothstein set off for nearby All Soul's Church without her. Nicole, having deposited the babies with their mother, followed, along with her sister, Nancy, 13; Tamar, 10; and LaToya, 8. As they walked down 16th Street NW, Rothstein put her arm around LaToya and held Tamar's hand. She talked to Nicole and Nancy about boys, about school and their dreams for the future.

"A lot of {the program} is simply exposure -- something they never had before," Rothstein said. "And then it's having a caring adult, someone who cares about them."

Dance It Out will give its first performance at 1 p.m. Saturday at Calvary United Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Admission is free. For information, call 543-0945.