Dance teacher and choreographer Sylvia Soumah first met Carla Perlo, founding director of D.C.'s Dance Place, in the 1970s when she was ten years old and living in the projects of Cincinnati, Ohio. Then a university student, Carla created a dance company that rehearsed in a recreation center up the street from Sylvia, where Sylvia and a group of other young dancers began to take classes. Later, each was accepted into the city's prestigious School for Creative and Performing Arts.
"For Carla it was always more than just dance—she gave life skills," Sylvia says. "She would ask what did we want to be? It stuck with me. Carla was always a leader."
Sylvia now teaches with Carla at the nonprofit Dance Place in northeast Washington, D.C., where, as founding director, Carla has spent years building a community center with programs that range from group classes to programs for at-risk youth.
She pulls everyone in, Sylvia says, and still focuses using dance to help teach life skills. For Carla, every moment is a teaching moment.
"She keeps cereal for the kids across the street since they're sometimes hungry. How many organizations do that?" Sylvia says. "But she'll make those kids work for it. They can eat the cereal, but then they have to clean up in the neighborhood. She's constantly teaching."
Carla is ready when people ask how funding of the arts should be a priority when there are so many other needs in the D.C. region, where she moved in 1978 and founded Dance Place as a touring educational and performing arts company that later moved to a working neighborhood in the northeast section of Washington, D.C.
"People don't see the arts as part of our daily diet," Carla says. "That's why we have depression and obesity in this country. I believe we would not have as many medical problems if we had more rigorous dance programs."
In addition to being an important community center, Dance Place also is home to a resident company and two visiting companies and works to build a national reputation in the field of dance presentation, commissioning of choreographic works, and the training of dancers through all its programs.
"Creative expression helps people figure out who they are," Carla says with a smile. "We need to train people to be creative from the time they're born until the time they die."
With Carla at the helm, Dance Place has been highly ambitious—and highly successful. A recap of 2006-2007 shows an organization constantly in motion. Dance Place served 9,500 children and youth and partnered with 55 schools and organizations throughout Greater Washington. There were 81 public performances with more than 650 artists, 10 touring companies, and six festivals. Many of the programs for youth are offered after school and in the summer, when schools and parents lack the necessary resources to provide enrichment programs for their children.
In the future, Dance Place hopes to redevelop its home in northeast D.C. and create a united campus that would include low-cost housing and market rate condos—her dream for the future to expose people at all income levels to the arts.
The work is what keeps Carla Perlo running, she says.
"I love what I do. I get to teach, direct, choreograph; I get to work in program development. I love numbers and keep a tight handle on the budget. I help to keep the institution stable and document for the future. I'm challenged every day."
Learn more about Dance Place and Executive Director Carla Perlo in Meyer's 2007 Annual Report.
Since 1980, D.C. Wheel Productions, Inc., has grown its facility, Dance Place, as one of the nation's premier community arts centers. Viewed as a theater, school and community resource, and fueled by a passion and expertise in dance, Dance Place is recognized for its leadership role and model programs in the national and local arenas. These programs aim to expand the field of dance, nurture leadership for the future and strengthen community partnerships. Learn more about Dance Place.