The four girls walked into the band room at Howard County's Reservoir High School as though they were any modern-day teenagers strolling through the mall: Their hair was tied up in sloppy ponytails, and they wore pink polo shirts and sweatpants. But then the music began.

"You run in one, two, three, four -- and five you hit your pose," choreographer Illona Kessel instructed the girls as she ran through the steps for a number in the musical "Ragtime."

The girls lifted their chins and put on 1,000-watt smiles. They were now showgirls from the early 1900s kicking up their legs and shaking their behinds vaudeville-style -- with a flirtatious "Whee!" every now and then for good measure.

The girls are part of a cast of 56 students ages 13 to 20 from across the Washington area who have trained with some of the area's top professionals to transform themselves into the characters in "Ragtime." Sponsored by the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, five performances will be held tonight and throughout the weekend.

"They not only are putting on a great show, they're also getting information and instruction that they can apply to everything else they do," program director Chris Christiansen said.

This year the intensive summer program garnered a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grants were given to 10 student arts workshops across the country out of a pool of 800, Christiansen said.

Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, started the summer camp three years ago and is its artistic director. She is also directing the students' "Ragtime" production. Her professional theater group, which staged the same musical earlier last year, was nominated for nine regional Helen Hayes Awards.

Students have attended workshops and rehearsals from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for nearly a month. The program costs about $600, and at least one-third of the students have scholarships that were partially paid for by the NEA grant, Christiansen said.

The day camp gives budding actors the opportunity to perform in plays that most high school drama groups are unable to take on because of their social or technical complexity. In past years, that included performances of "Les Miserables" and "Children of Eden."

Set at the turn of the 20th century, "Ragtime" follows the lives of three families as they explore the American dream and sometimes are disillusioned by what they find. The play also examines racial strife and delves into the seedy but true story of Evelyn Nesbit, a Pittsburgh model and actress who turned the story of her husband's fatal feud with her lover into a successful vaudeville act. That's a far cry from performing in, say, "Annie," said Jay Frisby, a 17-year-old who attends Glenelg Country School and plays the part of musician Coalhouse Walker Jr.

"It's much more fun to do because you get so much more emotionally vested in this," he said.

Students auditioned for their parts this winter. Many plan to pursue acting careers, and the program allows them to work with professionals and guest artists to perfect performance skills such as vocal inflection and stage presence.

Even the stage trappings are the real thing, on loan from professional theater companies. One of the biggest thrills for Brittany Proia, 18, of Brookefield in Montgomery County is the chance to wear one of Bernadette Peters's old costumes -- a sequined corset and bloomers that the Broadway actress wore in the play "Sunday in the Park With George."

"Maybe I'm a musical theater nerd, but that's really exciting," Proia said. "I'm hoping some of the karma will wear off."

Many faculty members have worked at Toby's Dinner Theatre. Kessel, the camp's choreographer, and musical director Doug Lawler are both working on the dinner theater's current musical, "Cats."

As the students ran through the climactic final scene of the play one morning last week, Orenstein barked out orders:

"Keep the body up!"

"Go in on the applause!"

"Send it out to the people!"

The students scurried around the stage in response to her directions. The scene was an emotional one, in which the black characters and white characters must cross the racial divide between them, but find that there are still barriers that they cannot break down. As Frisby belted out the heartfelt song "Make Them Hear You," his face contorted with passion, his fellow performers began weeping.

Orenstein was sniffling, too, and she had trouble reading the script.

"You need tissues for this show -- oh, it's stunning!" she said, wiping her eyes.

Orenstein called out to the cast to run through the scene again, even though some of the female students were still sobbing.

The students braced themselves to do the scene once more. The show must go on.

See Howard Extra's "Best Bets" on Page 8 of this issue for performance times and ticket information.

Adrienne Moody of Columbia hits a note during a "Ragtime" rehearsal in the drama camp sponsored by the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts.Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre, started the camp and directs the students. "You need tissues for this show -- oh, it's stunning!" she said. Shaun Brown, left, and Chris Wicks rehearse a scene from "Ragtime," which is being presented this weekend.Gregory Burks of Columbia takes a break to study his lines. Many of the students at the summer camp plan to pursue acting careers.