The Eliot Elementary School gym in Northeast Washington is filled with rhythm. Two percussionists play the congas. Four dancers spin, shimmy and smile for a somewhat restless audience of about 30 people. Children wander in and out.

Carla Perlo walks around the gym, barefoot. She adjusts the sound system, hands out programs, smiles encouragingly to her dancers. She wears shorts, and her outsize T-shirt says "Dance Place." She is six months pregnant.

It is difficult to label Carla Perlo, but she is best known as a dancer and choreographer. "I like the freedom of dance," she says emphatically. With her husband, musician and composer Steve Bloom, she directs D.C. Wheel Inc. Productions. D.C. Wheel includes Dance Place, their Adams-Morgan studio; Perlo/Bloom and Company, their dance company; and a host of other music and dance-related projects. With the summer touring season just behind her and the reopening yesterday of her Takoma Park studio, Perlo is a busy woman.

Perlo and Bloom founded D.C. Wheel Inc. Productions, a nonprofit umbrella organization, in 1980. They present 36 dance groups from as close as Washington and as far away as the Netherlands, and according to Perlo, this is more than anyone in the area. They also handle Perlo/Bloom and Company, for which Carla does the choreography and Steve composes music.

As if all this were not enough, D.C. Wheel runs Dance Place, with a studio on 18th Street in Adams-Morgan and one in Takoma Park. The Takoma Park studio originally opened last November, only to be closed by the fire marshal in January. But Perlo says the building is now safe and ready for dancers.

Perlo has a devoted following, and she is equally committed to her students and company members. "This is a difficult audience to play for," she observes, surveying the sparse crowd at Eliot. "The floor is sticky and the dancers' feet are all split up. But they keep going because they love to dance."

D.C. Wheel's annual budget is $120,000, which Perlo says is "growing all the time. As we're making more, we're expanding and spending more. It is keeping its head above water, a difficult task for any arts organization." Perlo calls herself a conservative administrator. "I don't let this organization get into the red. Most nonprofit groups are between $5,000 and $10,000 in the red. Psychologically, I don't think that's a good place to be."

Perlo raises funds, designs posters, choreographs and teaches. She has been known to race over to the drums during a class and beat out a rhythm for her students. "The more you know, the more understanding you have of what has to be done," she says simply, "even if you don't do it all yourself."

Dancer Jan Van Dyke used to run Dance Project, a studio located in the same 18th Street home of Dance Place, and Perlo was on the faculty. When Van Dyke left Washington for New York, Perlo took over and essentially started from scratch. "People think that Dance Project just became Dance Place, but it was not an easy transition," says Perlo. "I started with just a shell, except for the wooden floor, which I bought."

Perlo created the Dance Place Performing Series, expanding performances from about 10 a year during Van Dyke's directorship to more than 30.

"Now, we are a service organization," she says, "knowing that local companies need a place to perform." Perlo did not change the studio's modern dance training, which is primarily Merce Cunningham-influenced. "I like the Cunningham alignment and purity of line, but it lacks a lot of release, so I steal from my own background," she says. That background includes gymnastics, folk dance and drill team.

But Dance Place is firmly committed to modern dance. "We haven't gone commercial," says Perlo. "No exercise, no aerobics."

Perlo, who is originally from Washington, started dancing at the University of Cincinnati when she was 18--"late for a dancer," she admits. She majored in both physical education and dance, despite the fact that she "hated sports." Dancer and teacher Thelma Hill gave her the desire to dance. "I loved her and I loved the way she taught," Perlo says.

Perlo danced with the Contemporary Dance Theater of Cincinnati and directed The Linn Street Dance Company, which was part of a Model Cities program. People from the neighborhood served on the board of directors and designed the programs they wanted. Jan Van Dyke met Perlo in Cincinnati in 1978, and persuaded her to return home and join Dance Project. Bloom was music director there. They were married in 1979.

Now, under D.C. Wheel, Perlo runs the studio with Bloom and dancer/choreographer Cathy Paine. They have one bookkeeper, one assistant and 20 scholarship students who also serve as receptionists or work at performances. Perlo says she is "doing too much" and would like a larger staff. Though she will not teach for three months when she has her baby, she does not plan to stop working.

The Perlo/Bloom creative process varies. "Sometimes I compose a piece and videotape it for him and sometimes we go step by step together," says Perlo. But generally, Perlo choreographs the dance before Bloom composes the music. She works with everyday themes--"like relationships . . . I'm generally a positive and optimistic person"--creating dances that are accessible to "the general public who don't know anything about dance."

The Dance Place Summer Touring Company, an extension of Perlo/Bloom and Company, just finished its second year of operation. Funded by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, the 10 dancers have toured the various wards of the city, performing mostly in school gyms.

The Takoma Park studio will offer more options for beginners than the 18th Street studio and cater more specifically to children and teen-agers. "I've always wanted a 'feeder studio' in the suburbs," says Perlo. She particularly likes Takoma Park--so much, in fact, that she just bought a house there. "It feels like a small town. There are blacks, whites, Hispanics--it feels very much like this neighborhood," she says, referring to Adams-Morgan.

"I want to stay right here," says Perlo, "right here in Washington."