African dancers kicked off the Smithsonian Institution's day-long Kwanzaa celebration with their bare feet yesterday. In the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History, near the stuffed African elephant, while onlookers gawked, the Akatanwia dancers twirled and strutted to the incessant beat.

Then they led the crowd in a traditional Ghanian procession. Yesterday, their route went through the museum into the new "African Voices" exhibit, under a doorway bearing a quote from a Maya Angelou poem: "I rise. Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream and the hope of the slave."

They went past the display on African Muslims and Ethiopia and the Battle of Adwa. The drums beat. The singers chanted. Unsuspecting visitors at the "Life in the Ancient Seas" exhibit smiled at the line of joy, the musical pied pipers followed by teenagers hip-hopping, a couple of grandmothers pushing strollers, children skipping. They ended at Baird Auditorium, where Maulana Karenga, the cultural historian and activist who created Kwanzaa 33 years ago, spoke on the ageless message of the African American holiday.

This year the Smithsonian Institution presented an early taste of Kwanzaa--which actually runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1--offering activities at three Smithsonian museums.

Juanita Sealy-Williams sashayed through the procession led by the dancers, keeping up with her two grandchildren--Jordan Adjua Pryor, 6, and Autumn Clay McMillan, 2.

"I want them to be proud of their culture and heritage," she said. "It is important they see Kwanzaa celebrated publicly as well as privately, so they can see it is respected and honored by others."

The event attracted people of different races and cultures; some had planned to attend the celebration, and others happened upon it.

As his grandchildren and other relatives laughed, Mitchell Finegold, 65, of Hollywood, Fla., shook his hips and performed a type of hand-jive dance as part of a tale told by African storytellers.

The same storytellers explained Kwanzaa, demonstrating rituals and teaching the seven principles celebrated during the week.

In his speech, Karenga told the audience that Kwanzaa focuses on five activities, including a gathering of people "to reaffirm the bond between them" and "a special reverence of the environment."

"It is a celebration of the good--of the family, the community, the culture, the brotherhood," he said.

There also were events at the National Museum of African Art. The Anacostia Museum, currently under renovation, held its activities at the Arts and Industries Building.

In the rotunda there, Queentari Nyasuma waited while two of her children--Serene, 7, and Shani, 3--listened to a storyteller's fable of a frog who wanted to sing. On her hip, Nyasuma carried her 11-month-old daughter, Africa. She brought the children and a neighbor's son, Noah, 10, "because every year the Kwanzaa celebrations are so much fun. It gives us a chance to celebrate life, just being with each other, while learning."

"I got a chance to play the drums," offered Serene. "I wrapped myself in kente cloth. I climbed a tree outside, and I'm getting ready to play an African game."

At the end of an exhibit on kente cloth, people could get a photo made of themselves swathed in the colorful material as they stood or sat behind a table set up for a Kwanzaa ceremony.

Beverly Tucker discovered the Smithsonian celebration while browsing on the Internet, and she and her family took the Metro there from Landover.

"I'm in the Air Force, and my children live a sheltered life. I wanted them to experience African culture," said Tucker, nearly giddy with excitement.

Tucker, 36, her husband Michael, 35, and their two children--Nykia, 5, and DeAja, 8, were wrapped in kente cloth and then posed for a portrait, which cost $1.

Once swathed in cloth, Michael Tucker, called in a deep, kingly voice, "Bring me my pipe."

His wife laughed. "You're taking this too seriously."

A couple of minutes later the photo was ready. They all gathered to look. Said Beverly Tucker: "All we need are crowns."

CAPTION: Joseph Sohngwa, of Akatanwia, shows Jordan Adjua Pryor, 6, a children's dance during the Smithsonian Institution's celebration of Kwanzaa.