Carla Perlo has spent a lifetime in dance studios, theaters, classrooms and board rooms. For decades she has been a driving force for keeping dance thriving in Washington. Co-founder and artistic director emerita of Dance Place, the region’s foremost home for modern, vernacular and world dance forms, she had little time to stop and smell the roses, let alone water and fertilize them, until she retired in 2017.
“Retirement terrifies me,” she said. So she keeps moving. In fact, on nearly all Saturday mornings, don’t try to call her. Her phone is off. Saturdays are sacred as they have been for more than four decades.
At 9:30 a.m., Perlo’s flock gathers — these days either in a Northeast Washington studio or virtually via Zoom — for her ever-popular beginner/low intermediate modern dance class. Her students stretch, bend, run and leap, while Perlo demonstrates and describes what she wants. Many of her regulars have been taking her class since the early 1980s, while others are brand new to the fold. As a teacher, she welcomes all who show up ready to dance.
But teaching class is just one thing that keeps her continually moving. These days, planning, planting, cultivating and harvesting occupy her time, both at Dance Place and at Takoma Park Middle School, where she also leads the afterschool gardening club.
Self-taught as a gardener, Perlo began experimenting in her own backyard about six years before her retirement. “Could I move the day lilies from here to Dance Place? I wanted to activate the gardens there and we didn’t have any money [for a landscaper]. “I always had wonderful native plants, ferns in the backyard … and different things flowered in this yard every month. I enjoyed them, but never had any time to do anything with them.”
On a whim, she stopped by Takoma Park Middle School to ask if she could put her plants there over the winter — with so many plants at home space was tight. An administrator said yes, if she could share her gardening skills with the students.
“I said, ‘I’m not a master gardener. I don’t have any degrees. I just know how to grow plants.’ They said, ‘As long as you can teach the kids how to grow plants and you have experience working with young people.’”
With 35 years of teaching youngsters and others dance, Perlo rolled up her sleeves, put on her gloves and got to work. With help from friends and community members an irrigation system was installed, kids joined up and the garden bloomed.
A long-time member of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Perlo’s life works are easy to see through a Jewish lens. Teaching, building a vibrant community space for dance, advocating for arts education for all, creating afterschool and summer camp programs for the Brookland neighborhood children who otherwise would be at loose ends — they all smack of repairing a broken world.
“As Jews, we make the world better. So what could be better than growing plants, growing food, growing flowers, growing herbs and teaching others to do it?” Perlo said.
“One of the most important things for a person to be able to do is to feel that they are connected to the earth and that they can grow something. For me it’s also a connection with God. Everything comes back to God. We are so fortunate to live on this earth and we should be in touch with the earth. It’s crucial.”