It started down a rat-infested alley in Adams Morgan. Then it moved into a welding workshop in the Brookland/Edgewood neighborhood. Now comfortably expanded after a $4 million renovation in 2014, Dance Place remains unchanged: It is still the heart of the region’s dance life, as it has been for 35 years.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Washington area owes much of its active dance scene to the generous-spirited model, and in many cases to the training and R&D, offered by Dance Place directors Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley. They have devoted themselves to the low-paying and high-risk but satisfying business of growing artists.
To mark the longevity of their enterprise and to pay tribute to those who have helped them flourish, Perlo and Riley are hosting a 35th-anniversary Reunion Concert on Jan. 30-31. It’s a flashback to Dance Place’s origins, featuring artists present at its birth, or close to it. Among those with works on the program are area choreographers Helen Hayes, Alvin Mayes, Lesa McLaughlin, Cathy Paine and Harriet Moncure Fellows, who is staging a work by the late Eric Hampton. Perlo and Riley also will present choreography.
The event is dedicated to choreographer Jan Van Dyke, who died last year. In the 1970s, Perlo helped Van Dyke run Dance Project Inc., a performance venue in what once was an auto-repair shop on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. They brought in mostly New York artists to put on a few events a year. When Van Dyke left for New York in 1980, Perlo took over the lease and Dance Place was born.
But Perlo made an important change: She expanded the performance series by focusing on local artists as well as those from across the country, not just New York. Then, in 1985, her Adams Morgan rent quadrupled, and Perlo bought a humble concrete bunker at 3225 Eighth St. NE, in the shadow of Catholic University, on a street lined with junkyards. This sparked another change: Perlo opened her doors to the neighborhood, offering after-school care and summer camps to families in the area, many with low incomes. The kids receive homework help, do chores, learn to garden, knit and sew, and are paid small amounts for each task, money they pocket at the end of the year.
“When Dance Place opened, and particularly when it moved to Brookland, it became much more of a community center,” says Alvin Mayes, who met Perlo in 1978 and ran a company that performed at Dance Place. “It helped us all define what a community is, and how dance can be a part of that. And what we do with dance other than just perform.”
Riley, who this month will receive the Pola Nirenska Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, came on board as a co-director in 1999. She had toured the world with the New York-based Douglas Dunne and Dancers, led by the former Merce Cunningham dancer. But having tired of that life, she came to Dance Place to teach and lead one of its resident companies.
Riley and Perlo have fostered the creation of countless works of art in their black-box studio. They keep their doors open year-round — not just for a nine-month season, not merely for a few choice events. Dance Place offers classes six days a week and performances just about every weekend. It hosts troupes from the surrounding areas (such as Maryland’s Christopher K. Morgan & Artists, March 19-20), as well as from across the country and elsewhere (including Contra-Tiempo from Los Angeles, Feb. 13-14, and Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company, May 21-22). It draws students, dance lovers and creative seekers of all kinds to its intimate space, which makes room for an astonishing wealth of ideas.
“Taking bold risks with unknown artists, and presenting a large range — it’s not accidental, it’s intentional,” Perlo says, speaking with Riley recently over breakfast at Busboys and Poets near Perlo’s home in Takoma Park. (Riley lives in nearby Silver Spring.) “When you’re presenting every single weekend, you have to have diverse offerings.”
Petite and powerful, with long dark hair only slightly graying, Perlo, 64, is the more outspoken of the two women. Tall and lean, Riley, 66, is quieter, with an air of peaceful patience. They complement each other — Perlo is decisive, Riley seeks consensus. And they are united in drawing a clear distinction between their mission and that of other local dance presenters, such as the Kennedy Center, the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center or the American Dance Institute in Rockville, which has presented established out-of-town artists such as San Francisco’s Joe Goode Performance Group and has in some ways competed with Dance Place. Dance Place offered an early home to artists now too expensive to bring back, such as Goode and the Blue Man Group, which performs around the world. Perlo and Riley say that unlike other presenters who book just a few high-profile companies a year, Dance Place is building the field with its varied, nonstop offerings.
“That means supporting artists, making opportunities for them, building audiences and being very impactful in our neighborhood,” Perlo says.
With Dance Place’s success, its neighborhood began to improve. Brookland Studios opened next door; it’s now Brookland Artspace Lofts, with galleries and housing for artists. Charter schools opened nearby. Two blocks away is the Monroe Street Market development, home of the Edgewood Arts Building and an Arts Walk showcasing local craftspeople.
Reflecting on the recent news that ADI will leave the area for Upstate New York after its 2016-17 season, Perlo said Dance Place won’t change its plans: “I think we’re going to do what we always do.”
That includes one of Dance Place’s greatest, yet unsung, contributions: its involvement with the community children, to teach them that artistic skills pair well with life skills and can lead to a whole new life.
Mayes, a longtime instructor at the University of Maryland, where he is the director of undergraduate dance studies, has worked with Perlo and Riley to plant the idea of college into the minds of the middle school and high school students from the Brookland community who attend Dance Place’s summer camps. “Young folks there often felt they did not have a voice,” he says. The students learned to use computers and fill out applications; they took tours of the Maryland campus. At least one of his students at Maryland has landed a job at Dance Place.
For parents in the Brookland/Edgewood area, Dance Place has offered more than after care.
“Honestly, I would not have been able to survive without having Dance Place over the last few years,” says Janelle Cash, a single mother of three. Her eldest, Asia, started in the “Energizers” after-school program at age 7. Perlo offered Asia free dance classes, and the girl found a calling. She wants to be a professional dancer, her mother says, and she’s on her way: Last fall, she won a coveted spot in the dance program at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, competing against about 300 others.
“Her only experience was at Dance Place, and she went against kids who were dancing since they were walking,” her mother says.
Michelle Brown Johnson, also a single mother of three, echoes Cash’s praise for what Dance Place offers children in its gentle but firm approach to moving through life. “They teach them about respect, for themselves and others. About other people’s feelings.
“I don’t know what I’d do without them.”