FIRST, THE bus crossed a divider on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then it struck a guardrail, spun 180 degrees and careened across the highway. The driver lost control of the steering and brakes; the bus went over the divider again and smashed into a cement wall.

A few minutes on an August night in 1984. The end of Darlene Ceglia’s performing career.

“I was really quite devastated,” the West Side native recalls. “I had never thought of doing anything else in my life other than dance, and the thought of not doing it was very, very difficult.”

It doesn’t look like Mrs. Ceglia, now 34, stopped dancing for one day, much less eight years.

As she surveys her new studio on Hertel Avenue, you can’t help but notice her buoyant step, her perfect posture and the arms and legs that dominate her 5 foot 6 inch, 105 pound frame.

Still, there are vestiges of the accident that happened that summer night as Mrs. Ceglia and the rest of the Balletap dance troupe were returning to Manhattan from a show in Atlantic City.

A thin scar begins just above her knee and creeps up her thigh evidence of the surgery she underwent to remove a tumor that formed after the crash. When she stands with her legs together, the left one juts forward just slightly. Her right hip sits slightly higher than the left.

“I can’t dance,” she says matter of factly. “The band that connects the hip and the knee was damaged so severely that the leg doesn’t straighten all the way and doesn’t bend all the way.”

Before the accident, all Darlene Ceglia did was dance.

Her training began at age 3 in the Betty Rodgers Dance Studio. A few years later she transferred to the Debonaire Dance Studio opened by her cousin, Sam Fiorello.

During the late ’70s, John Ceglia would spend Saturday afternoons watching Darlene then Darlene Kesler dance the Hustle, the Bus Stop and other favorites on the television show “Disco Step by Step.”

“He saw me out one night and said, ‘I like your shoes.’ I thought he meant the ones I had on, and he said, ‘No, I liked the ones you had on the show today.’ ”

Darlene attended Buffalo State College and transferred to Daemen College. But when John, a sound engineer, had an opportunity to spin records in a New York City nightclub, she took a permanent leave of absence from school to be with her fiance and pursue her dance career in earnest. In 1980 she left town with her dance bag on her shoulder and $300 in her purse.

The money didn’t last long. While waiting for John at the Summit Park Hotel the first day, she set her purse down momentarily. That was the last time she saw it.

“I learned a very important lesson very quickly. I immediately started auditioning for scholarships, because I was without money. Getting a scholarship would be the easiest way for me to stay in shape for auditions.”

She got two. Then she was hired to perform with the American Dance Machine. And then she danced on a nationally televised variety show, was a guest artist for an Ohio State Alumni Series performance, toured with a summer stock production of “Kiss Me Kate,” taught jazz at the Harkness House and danced and sang in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It was an auspicious beginning. But then then the bus driver missed the exit and tried to make it anyway.

Everyone else suffered minor injuries. Mrs. Ceglia hobbled on crutches for a year and walked with a cane for five.

“The doctors said that if I hadn’t been a dancer, and my muscles weren’t as strong, it could have been a lot worse,” she remembers.

Still, it was bad. Although she went to a desensitizing clinic in Arizona, Mrs. Ceglia still encounters a nagging discomfort and hyperawareness when anything wind, water, clothes comes in contact with her thigh.

She underwent three years of physical therapy. Every night she would lie on the floor, lift her right leg and then order her left leg to go up. It didn’t budge, but neither did her optimism. “Thank God I had danced. I didn’t say, ‘Well, can I ever do a grand jete?’ I said, ‘Let me use all my training so I can learn to walk up and down stairs again.’ ”

Ironically, it wasn’t the physical therapy that enabled Mrs. Ceglia to climb stairs. It was another accident.

In 1989, a driver made an illegal left hand turn and hit Mrs. Ceglia’s side of the car. Injuries to her neck forced her to visit an acupuncturist, who saw her leg and said he could help. But the price she would pay would be more than dollars and cents.

“He said that because the damage was so deep to the nerves, he would have to go deep and use thicker needles. It was excruciating. My body would just contort.”

But it was worth it. Six months later, Mrs. Ceglia put her cane away for good.

Last year, the Ceglias returned to Buffalo so Darlene could open a studio. High kicks are a thing of the past, but Mrs. Ceglia says she can teach.

“Before the acupuncture and gaining control of my leg, I didn’t feel that I was ready to teach. But now that I have more mobility I can demonstrate enough to get my ideas across,” she says, adding that she will also use student demonstrators. When all else fails, her arms and hands will show what her legs can’t.

Richard Disarno, the national director of the 34 year old dance organizations Dance Olympus and Danceamerica, is confident that Mrs. Ceglia won’t fail. He has followed her career from the very beginning, when she studied at Debonaire where he was the executive director to the present. He considers himself one of her worst critics and biggest fans.

“Darlene was always a quick study. Her ability for musical interpretation is beautiful. Her ability at using the accent of the music in choreography will make her stand out in the area.