Rickey Geiger remembers doing the Charleston as a 5-year-old at home in Warwickshire, England.

It's not surprising that for someone who's been dancing almost as long as she's been walking, her earliest memories are of a pair of ballet slippers and the war years, when she and others embraced movies and music to take their minds off the fighting.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the rage, and the American GIs flooding her homeland introduced "swing" to the English.

Geiger was 6 when World War II started and 12 when it ended, and by then she knew for certain that dancing was her life.

"All I ever wanted to do was dance," said Geiger, now 66 and living in Fairfax. "It's just the perfect way of expressing yourself. Dancing, to me, is really walking to music. It's in your blood--you have to do it."

As a preteen, Geiger began entering dance competitions with her sister as a partner. By 16, she was dancing professionally and with male partners in local and regional competitions. It wasn't long before she decided to make ballroom dance her career.

She began by teaching, then managing a training school for other teachers. By the time she was 30, the Arthur Murray International Dance Company hired her to bring the European style of ballroom dance to the United States, and specifically, to the Washington area.

The European version of ballroom dance, seen in international competitions, is characterized by its closed style: Partners never lose physical contact with one another. The American version features the open style. Think Fred and Ginger.

Geiger spent one year in this area with the Arthur Murray company, returning to England when her contract expired. Soon, stacks of telegrams and letters began arriving, pleading for her return. Her fans in this area had even collected the money for her airfare.

So Geiger, her husband and their three children emigrated. In 1966, she opened the Vienna Ballroom Dance Academy in Northern Virginia.

Her achievements since then include founding the North American Dance Teachers Association, co-authoring the first "rule book" for ballroom dance competition and being inducted into the America's Dancers Hall of Fame.

These days, Geiger has given up competition in favor of teaching, judging and coaching dance teams. Four of those teams will be competing starting today in the Virginia State Ballroom Dancesport Championships, which Geiger helped organize in the mid-1960s.

More than 3,000 dancers ages 12 to 80 will compete for $35,000 in prize money at the four-day event, being held at the Reston Town Center Hyatt Regency. Contestants are coming from across the country, testimony to the revived popularity of ballroom dancing.

"For a long time we had the 'self' era, and so in the '60s, '70s and '80s, we had go-go and disco--you danced by yourself, you didn't hold your partner," Geiger said. "Now you have companies like the Gap using swing dance to advertise their clothes. Swing clubs are popping up all over the country, and people are saying, 'Gosh, it's okay to be close to someone. You can hold your partner.' "

Movies such as "Swing Kids" and "Dance With Me" haven't hurt either. And many young singles have found that ballroom dancing is a great way to meet people.

"I've been in the D.C. area three years, and most of the people I've become friends with I've met through the dance world," said Lynne Powell, 26, a student of Geiger's who will be competing in the Virginia championships. "It brings people from all different backgrounds and generations together."

Powell got her first taste of ballroom dancing in high school gym class. Social ballroom dancing came later, in college, when she joined a ballroom dance club. Eventually, she decided to compete.

Like many dance enthusiasts, she was influenced by the grace and beauty of the silver-screen dance immortals.

"It makes you feel pretty and graceful," said Powell, a technical writer. "You put on the makeup and the costumes, and you feel like you could be one of the great dancers like Ginger Rogers."

Powell's partner, Robert Woods, a 56-year-old computer systems engineer, has had his own lifelong love of dance.

"It's something I always wanted to do," said Woods, who has been dancing for almost 10 years. "I'm old enough to remember when people actually used to dance together, and now it's back again."

After a few months of lessons, Woods finally got up the nerve to go to a dance at a Fairfax studio. Feeling somewhat intimidated, "I almost got out of there without dancing at all. But there was one lady there determined not to let me go without a dance. Thank goodness she didn't," he said with a laugh.

The fact that ballroom dancing is now recognized as an Olympic sport--the first competition will be at the 2004 Summer Games--has also boosted its popularity, dancers say.

"We're more respectable--we've been given the mark of approval by the highest sporting authority," Geiger said.

The Virginia State Ballroom Dancesport Championships that open today are in their 35th year, the longest-running dancesport championship in the country. The competition is also the largest ballroom competition in the Washington/Baltimore area, part of the Challenge of Champions series televised on PBS.

Amateur and professional dancers will compete in both American- and European-style dance--everything from romantic waltzes to hot sambas and tangos.

Powell and Woods have been dancing together for about two years. This is their first state championship competition.

"We hope to do well, but we're also in it for the fun," Woods said.

CAPTION: Rickey Geiger, left, coaches Scott and Susan Bartram at Geiger's Vienna Ballroom Dance Academy. The couple, below, were preparing for the Virginia State Ballroom championships.