- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

Dance is for everyone. It's an art form that delights and inspires as it celebrates the differences among us.

For years, Dance Place, a Northeast Washington arts center, has encouraged community members and visitors alike to view dance as a resource of many hues. A stone's throw from Catholic University of America, Dance Place focuses on training adults in modern and West African dance, and youths in creative movement.

The nonprofit center's commitment to children as performers, students and audience members is remarkable, too. Dance Place offers free after-school programs for neighborhood children as well as free, educational and affordable performances and classes for schools and community groups. It's a dance presenter, a dance training ground and an experimental arena.

But the last word is that Dance Place is an exciting, accessible scene for enjoying dance performance. Its Family Series program aims to ensure the youngest among us is granted the opportunity to share the experience.

"Children love movement," Dance Place founding director Carla Perlo says. "They are so stimulated by the fact that instead of being told to sit still, someone has said this is a wonderful thing to move … and now we're going to applaud people for moving. Kids totally relate to that."

The Family Series includes five to eight performances per season and features professional companies as well as young artists. Performances offer a diversity of dance styles from ballet to modern dance, jazz to classical Indian, tap to West African, step to hip-hop. Each show, always held at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, is free for one child age 12 and younger with a paying adult.

The Family Series is a way for parents and children to engage in a shared and noncommercial experience, Ms. Perlo says.

"The Family Series is our way of saying, 'Do you want to have an enriching experience for your child?' " she says. "We really encourage children to say, 'Bring me to Dance Place.' It's going to give you some insight into youth in our country. Adults are always saying, 'I don't understand.' This is a way to bring parents and children together."

Family Series works and groups are selected for their broad, simultaneous appeal to adults and children. Ms. Perlo emphasizes, though, that many other performances throughout the season are appropriate for families as well.

The Family Series has been very successful, she says. "Parents are thrilled with seeing a performance they enjoyed that their children enjoyed also."

Indeed, it was a packed house on a recent Family Series Sunday for a performance of the Youth Dance Festival. More than 60 performers, ranging in age from 7 to 18, entertained with an array of styles from step to ballet.

The swanlike ballerinas, all beauty and grace, were juxtaposed with the incredibly intricate and powerful moves of the Dance Place Step Team, outfitted in black jumpsuits, who announced, "We have class, style, intelligence and strength."

"It's always great fun to watch the hip-hop dancers be inspired by the ballet dancers and vice versa and how everyone gets to see that the other art forms are extremely interesting and have a lot to offer," she says.

The annual youth festival got its start six or seven years ago in a plan hatched at Dance Place to offer youth dance companies the chance to stage a professional performance, Ms. Perlo says.

"This allows the children a couple of interesting experiences," she says. "It is their opportunity to perform and reach for the stars under the theater lights on the stage with the distractions of an audience being there. It's very different from the studio being still and waiting your turn, entering in the blackness, receiving responses from the audience that you're not used to having in rehearsals, and the amount of adrenalin a performer gets from being on stage."

Performance is an incredible growth process, she says.

"We hope it carries over for the children in life, whether that's an SAT test, speaking in front of an audience, going for a job interview. It builds confidence and self-esteem."

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