Carla Perlo. (Courtesy of Dance Place)

For two nights in a row, D.C. arts organizations tried to honor Carla Perlo, and two nights in a row, they instead found themselves toasting nearly 40 years of dance history in Washington.

Tuesday night at the 28th annual Mayor’s Arts Awards, Perlo was honored with the Outstanding Service to the Arts award. When D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) called her name, she didn’t walk down the aisle of the Warner Theatre — she danced, working in some fancy petit allegro and a full turn.

Wednesday night, the co-director of Dance Place had a much shorter aisle to strut, but she still worked the room at the Arts Club of Washington, where she gave the first “Evenings with Extraordinary Artists” talk of the season.

“You think I’m extraordinary?” Perlo asked, rhetorically. “I was always in the slow reading group.”

Growing up in Prince George’s County, Perlo was not a prodigy. She didn’t even start dancing until her late teens, when she signed up for a modern-dance gym class at Walter Johnson High School. In 1968, her parents’ business burned down in the Shaw riots, and faced with a financial crunch, they said she’d be going to the University of Maryland. Perlo took that as a challenge to find somewhere else just as cheap, and ended up at the University of Cincinnati, which even in the 1960s was flying in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater members to teach.

Carla Perlo and Mayor Gray at groundbreaking ceremony for Dance Place. (David Dowling)

After graduating and running a dance program for low-income children, Perlo contemplated moving to New York but had an epiphany: New York did not need “one more 5-foot-2-inch really good Jewish dancer, but D.C. did.”

So Perlo came home, and from 1975 to 1985 she danced and taught classes in an old auto dealership at 2424 18th St. NW in Adams Morgan. In 1980, her father co-signed the lease on the building with her, and Dance Place was born.

During the next five years, she would present the likes of Bebe Miller and “Lion King” choreographer Garth Fagan. As she talked at the Arts Club, video of the troupes was projected behind her, including a 1985 recording of the final performance in the Adams Morgan studio. That scratchy black-and-white film featured dancers crucial to the District’s dance scene then and now, including Joy of Motion program director Helen Hayes and George Mason University Dean Linda Miller.

“When I got thrown out of Adams Morgan,” Perlo recalled, “I was not ever going to get thrown out again.” In December 1986, Dance Place purchased a former auto-repair garage in Brookland. Even Perlo’s guardian angel investor Jim Epstein — who attended Perlo’s talk Wednesday — wasn’t happy. He didn’t like the neighborhood, but Perlo did. When children with nowhere to go after school started knocking on the door, she started a kids’ dance troupe. Soon the after-school program was bursting, and on the weekends, the unassuming brick building hosted dancers such as Eiko & Koma, tapper Savion Glover and the first performance outside New York by Blue Man Group (back when it was avant-garde, not a tourist attraction).

It took 25 years for the rest of Brookland to catch up with Dance Place. The neighborhood is now booming, with new condominium complexes and Catholic University dormitories, and even a Barnes & Noble bookstore under construction.

Dance Place itself is closed, undergoing a $4 million face-lift that will expand the theater, add a studio and bring the building up to the standard of other performing arts venues in the District.

Due to holdups in acquiring permits, the renovations are running behind schedule, Perlo admitted, and the hoped-for March grand reopening is now a fingers-crossed date in May.

Perlo put in a quick plea at the Arts Club for donors — the capital campaign is still about $600,000 short — but didn’t stick around to schmooze or answer questions. She left at 7:50 p.m. and headed straight to Reagan National Airport. She was off to Cuba, scoping out a potential dance troupe. So typical of Perlo: always on the move.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.