Arts Desk

Dance Place Turns 30, and Its Directors Reflect

On Saturday night, Dance Place celebrates its 30th anniversary—not with a performance, but with a gala.  This benefit event for this D.C. non-profit home of modern, hip-hop, and other dance styles will feature music by local Latin band Rumba Club and DJ GlowstickJim Byers, Artisphere’s marketing director and the host of WPFW’s "Latin Flavor" program, will host the party.  Byers used to teach salsa dancing at Dance Place. I spoke with Dance Place's Founding Director Carla Perlo and Director Deborah Riley about their longtime project.

In 1980, Carla Perlo’s D.C. Wheel Productions, Inc./Dance Place—which two years earlier  was founded as an  educational and performing arts company that toured D.C. area public schools—opened a home for dance in a rented space at 2424 18th Street NW, in Adams Morgan. Perlo liked the area but soon faced problems there. Gentrification brought a quadrupled rent so Perlo in 1986 decided to “go eastward so we could buy.” It was a “difficult transition,” moving to out-of-the way Brookland, but it allowed her to “create a permanent space for dance.” Now in 2010, Perlo says Dance Place is “as strong as ever.”

Deborah Riley joined Perlo in Brookland and has been a teacher, artist in residence, and administrator there.  She notes how the dance scene in the Washington area has changed over the years:  “Kennedy Center and Dance Place used to be the only places that presented dance in the whole metro area.  Since then there’s been a proliferation of dance—in university settings and theaters around town.”  Despite all these outlets, Dance Place remains busy—it hosts performances 46 weekends a year. That's a figure comparable to similiar venues in New York, and more than half of the time, the performers are based in D.C. “Dance companies are desperate for performances because in this economy they are seeing less opportunity," Riley says. "Fewer theatres are willing to take a risk and their budgets have been slashed.”

As a non-profit, Dance Place relies on grants from the government and private foundations, and donations from corporations and individuals.  “Every year we start from zero,” Riley explains: “Can you imagine? We don’t have multiple year grants.  Thankfully we have a wide variety of donor support that believes in our mission.” Riley and Perlo see that mission as more than just hosting dance performances and dance classes.  “We want to transform people’s lives,” says Riley, pointing to the Center’s efforts to reach school children as well as in helping artists make a livelihood and gather an audience.  She notes that Dance Place has affordable and free programs. Perlo points out that Brookland is now home to a number of charter schools, a pilates studio, and more.  “We feel we have helped catalyze that energy,” Riley says.

Dance Place has a busy schedule ahead that includes D.C.’s own Beat Ya Feet Kings, who were featured on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, veteran choreographer Maida Withers, and Berlin-born, Turkish-Egyptian dancer and choreographer Nejla Yatkin. In addition, Dance Place is involved in the establishment of the next-door Brookland Artspace Lofts. While some musicians who used to practice at the now-demolished Brookland studios at that location are not pleased, Perlo and Riley are proud that the new building will contain 41 affordable housing units for artists, and if funding can be obtained, a new studio, with a plaza and performance area connecting the housing and Dance Place's building.

“We love our theater," Riley says. "Carla is a very driven person. Dance Place has been her vision since the beginning. It’s miraculous. We have continued to flourish in up and down times. We feel fortunate.”

Dance Place’s 30th Anniversary Benefit Gala takes place Saturday October 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Dance Place, 3225 8th St. NE.  $125. 202-269-1600.

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