- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

The studio where Carla Perlo teaches modern dance is spare and unadorned, except for a few plants on a windowsill. It is a place where students learn to use just their bodies to create works of art.

Ms. Perlo, who has been teaching modern dance for the past 30 years, is the co-founder and executive artistic director for the Dance Place, a dance studio and theater located in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast.

Some of the dancers she has worked with and also taught have gone on to big-name professional companies, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Martha Graham Dance Co.

On this day, some of the students in her class will take part in the 100-minute class, and immediately afterward practice for at least another hour with Ms. Perlo's own dance company called Carla & Co. Some are in attendance just to have fun and learn modern dance.

The 12 dance students of her intermediate and advanced modern dance class sit on the floor, stretching themselves. The music starts from Ms. Perlo's tape recorder, and she leads them in exercises for about 20 minutes.

They go down on their sides and rhythmically kick in the air. They get up and, balancing on one foot, point their toes into the air. To the untrained eye, it's hard to tell where the stretching exercises end and the dance routine begins.

"You need to soften your rib cages," she tells the class, and she walks over to a girl named Claire to help her make the adjustment. She moves around the classroom, checking the postures of the other dancers.

"There you go, Claire, keep it up … breathe, Claire," she instructs.

She heads to the front of the room to change a tape in the recorder she is using today. Normally, she is accompanied by a pianist, but he couldn't be at the class.

It's too bad, she says, because she believes live music allows students to more easily "find their muse" than do taped recordings.

The muse is very important to Ms. Perlo's work.

"The best part is when music and dance come together and it goes from theory and technique and into what makes people want to go into dance in the first place the euphoria, the goose bumps," she says. "It's unexplainable in words and in scientific theory. That's what keeps people in it, though there's no money in it, and no logic behind it."

The muse is also an important part of Ms. Perlo's life. It's something she tries to have young children experience as part of a Dance Place outreach program she has created that brings her dance teachers into schools for after-school programs.

She shows a diagram of concentric circles a student has written in. The assignment was to show who students feel they are closest to. This one has the word "grandmother" scrawled in the center, followed by "family," then "friends."

"Most kids here in these programs don't have parents. They have one at best. It's not like we are able to say to a parent, 'OK, be here Tuesday at 4:30,' because most often, they have to bring themselves," she says.

She believes that if I child is exposed to art, it can really turn their lives around.

"We hope that through dance, they'll learn how to respect themselves and others," she says. "What happens when you go from not liking yourself, to having people applaud you?"

She fast-forwards through the tape to find the next song. During the silence, the students practice the steps they have just learned.

"This song, it's kind of corny, but it's going to be nice," she says. In the middle of the routine, she singles out another student, offering praise.

"Good, Sharon, now that is perfect."

The song ends, and during the delay between songs, Nancy, another student, asks for her help with the routine.

"There's something I'm missing about the timing," she says.

Ms. Perlo, goes over the routine again for her.

"Feel the curves of the circle," she instructs, as the students march in a circular fashion, with one arm outstretched.

She then splits the group into sets of three, and as she counts off a beat, the students practice their steps, but in a staggered fashion; the result on the count of three is like an abstract art form, made of contorted human shapes.

Ms. Perlo drags out a conga drum and as she beats out a rhythm, she has the students walk across the studio to the beat of the drum. Then she has them do a run-kick move back across the floor. It looks like something out of a Broadway show.

"If you want to be a Jet, be a Jet. If you want to be a Shark, be a Shark, I don't care," she says. The students recognize how theatrical they must look, and start to ham it up. One student, after finishing her running and kicking across the floor, ends her turn in a "jazz hands" pose, her arms bent out to her sides, with palms out. She can only hold the pose for a second before she starts laughing.

The end routine is a culmination of all the steps the dancers have learned today The dancers twirl, weave and flow across the floor, full of energy and enthusiasm.

"See, this is what I was talking about earlier," Ms. Perlo says, obviously pleased with what she is seeing. "This is the muse taking over."

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