John Kelly/The Washington Post – Director Deborah Riley, left, and founding director Carla Perlo of Dance Place in Northeast Washington.
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Once a dancer always a dancer. That’s what I thought as Carla Perlo showed me around her domain.
In 1980, the Washington area native founded Dance Place, a center for contemporary dance whose original home was in Adams Morgan. Forced from the building in 1986, Carla came to Brookland, where she turned a former welding company warehouse on Eighth Street NE into a performance space. That building is in the midst of a $4 million renovation. When it’s done this summer, it will reestablish Dance Place as an artsy anchor in a rapidly changing corner of the neighborhood.
Carla is a leader, and I mean that quite literally: She took me by the elbow as we crossed the street, guided me onto the sidewalk, brought me to a halt whenever she wanted to stop and point something out.
I was reminded of the ballroom dancing lessons I took with My Lovely Wife. As is common, students would swap partners — you have to be able to foxtrot or samba with anyone — and my wife would be amazed by her time with the male instructor.
A good partner can take the clumsiest dancer and — through his carriage, through the firm pressure of his hands — turn her into Ginger Rogers.
I was Ginger. Carla was Fred.
“If I’d been born a boy, I’d probably have been an athlete,” she said. “I was a girl, so I became a dancer.”
Her parents were Edith and Hyman Perlo. Hyman was a standout athlete at Roosevelt High in the District and an all-Met basketball player. He served during World War II as an Army paratrooper. The Perlos ran a clothing shop in Washington before Hyman went to work for Abe Pollinas director of community relations for the Baltimore Bullets, today’s Washington Wizards, and the Capital Centre.
Carla, 62, is a bit of community relations director herself.
“When we moved here, this was nothing,” she said as we walked on Eighth Street. The neighborhood could be dangerous at night back then.
“The kids protected me,” Carla said. They were no doubt curious about this crazy woman who had set up shop along an industrial strip by the railroad tracks.
Soon they were knocking on the door, asking to take classes, Carla said.
That effort continues today. Kids can study African dance, hip-hop, tumbling, tap and more. Adults come to move their feet, too.
Local troupes book performance time at Dance Place, which also hosts touring companies from around the world.
Eighth Street has changed a lot in the past 28 years — heck, in the past 10 years. Next door to Dance Place is ArtSpace, an apartment building with studio and gallery space for artists and some nice, big wooden floors for dancers. On the other side of Lee’s auto body shop is a place that handles bodies of a different sort: Excel Pilates.
Dance Place has some temporary space in the Edgewood Arts Center, a multi-use space. It sits next to the Monroe Street Bridge, which has been “yarn-bombed” by fiber artists, some of whom have studios in the Monroe Street Market, the big red-brick buildings overlooking the Brookland-CUA Metro station. A brewpub, Brookland Pint, will open soon. A Barnes and Noble is coming. When the weather warms up (it will warm up, won’t it?), Art on 8th will start: dance, music and art Thursday through Saturday on a plaza.
Carla hopes the Dance Place construction will be finished by June, in time for the annual Dance Africa festival. The renovation will greatly improve things. There will be better tech booths for light and sound and more comfortable seating for the 144 audience members. The dancers are most excited that they’ll be able to get from one side of the theater to the other without having to scurry outside the building.
I had stopped by Dance Place to hear about what may be the most visible feature of the renovated building: Artist Christopher Janney is creating a light and sound installation that will soar from an outside corner of Dance Place. Called “Touch My Building,” it is a two-story tower of translucent glass that will make sounds when passersby touch it.
Won’t that be noisy, I asked.
“The sound is quiet enough that it won’t be intrusive,” Carla said. “The light will be more like stained glass than neon. A soft light from within.”
A soft light from within. I was going to say that described Carla Perlo, but I think she’s more of a spotlight: bright and focused.