There's a wardrobe rack frothing over with tulle and velvet costumes on one side of the entrance to the Ballet Academy in Beltsville, but the sheets of paper taped on the wall on the other side may be just as important to the school's upcoming show.

They're character sketches the student performers have written, a few paragraphs of history and personality that fit the role each plays in "Masquerade Ball," an excerpt from which the academy will perform Tuesday at Prince George's Community College. A "Spanish dancer" writes that she was born in Italy; the "Cossacks" give themselves elaborate, multisyllabic Russian names.

Such exercises are one of the eclectic notes academy Director Alison Miller adds to the rigorous discipline of classical ballet; besides learning steps, some of the students learn about history, culture and other arts. Her dancers range from 3-year-olds to those in their fifties.

"We're very noncompetitive," Miller says of the academy. "You see the 5-year-olds counting on the bigger girls to help them. The students are very supportive."

The academy attracts as many adult students as it does children. Among the former, some are looking for fitness benefits, others returning to a childhood pastime. Some are burned out on aerobics or running and feel that the forgiving wooden spring floor of the ballet studio is easier on their knees. Among the younger students, many come from Pullen or Suitland, the county's performing arts schools. Gymnasts and ice skaters take ballet to add dimension to their movement.

Many parents, Miller says, notice that ballet can improve confidence. It imparts a sense of body awareness, "especially for girls," Miller says. "You'll notice how when they're about 12 or 13, how their shoulders start to slump, to cover what's growing." A dancer's stance doesn't show that kind of insecurity.

Miller is living proof that from-the-cradle devotion isn't necessary for a life in ballet. She was studying premed in college and working as a National Institutes of Health lab technician when she started taking ballet--just because she'd always wanted to. Within two years, she'd auditioned and been accepted to the dance program at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she got her bachelor's degree. She later got a master's in performing arts from American University.

She danced, taught and continued to take classes in a studio in College Park. When her dance teacher became ill in 1981, she took on the task of running the studio, which later became the Ballet Academy. Miller operated the studio at another location in Beltsville for 11 years, until a year ago, when a lease problem left the academy only 30 days to find a new home. It was traumatic for students and teacher alike, and Miller said she was almost inclined to give up. What saved the studio, she says, was its sense of camaraderie.

"Almost losing the studio really made the students fight to keep it going," she says.

When she found the new location, she brought in the barre, but everything else had to be created literally from the floor up. "Four fathers and myself built the floor," Miller says. "I think we did it in about 14 hours."

Enrollment at the small studio has stayed pretty steady, Miller says. But ballet itself is facing increasing competition from other dance forms. A surge of popularity that started about 20 years ago during the heyday of Baryshnikov and Balanchine has simmered down. "I don't see the passion for ballet right now. Dancers don't follow so much what's going on in the dance world," Miller says.

The academy has an outreach performance program in county schools that could inspire some future dancers. It is geared, like the company's PGCC show, toward elementary school-age children. Miller choreographs with an eye to keeping it short, colorful and dramatic, with plenty of roles. It's a way for student audiences to be exposed to dance and music they might not encounter otherwise--though Miller admits that the piece choreographed to the music of modern composer Bela Bartok probably will go over their heads.

Miller is proud of students who have gone on to study medicine, business administration and engineering. "You can get a dance scholarship to go to college even if that's not going to be your career," she points out. She mentions a former student now in the traveling company of a Broadway musical but also talks about her admiration for a student who struggled back to health and dance after an operation for scoliosis.

"So many of my students are memorable," she says, "but memorable for more reasons than just dancing."

The Ballet Academy performs an act from "Masquerade Ball" and other student dances at 10:15 and 11 a.m. Tuesday and 7:30 p.m. at Prince George's Community College, Hallam Theater, 301 Largo Rd., Largo. Daytime performances are $2 for children, free for accompanying adults; evening performance is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 2 to 12. Call 301-595-5006.

CAPTION: Teacher Alison Miller leads a class at the Ballet Academy in Beltsville. The academy performs Tuesday at Prince George's Community College.

CAPTION: Ballet students prepare for class. The academy attracts adults and children.