Like every good meeting, these start out with snacks. Then the 12 young men and women recap the previous week and ask each other questions like, “What did you do to achieve your goals?” But this isn’t a support group in someone’s living room. These meetings are held at Dance Place, a studio and theater space in Northeast Washington, D.C.
These men and women come to Dance Place not to learn dance, but to learn general life skills. They are members of NEXTlevel, a unique youth outreach program that is coming up on its one-year anniversary in September.
And last October the parent organization, Dance Place, also celebrated a significant milestone—30 years of serving the dance world and the D.C. community.
When she founded Dance Place in 1980, Carla Perlo — a Takoma Park resident —intended to “make a professional space for the training and presentation of dance that would be utilized by a wide range of artists and would be a theater for the public —meaning people could afford it.” And over the past 30 years, she has done just that. But her influence has reached far outside the dance community.
As Perlo taught and worked with D.C. youth over the years, she noticed that some were dropping out of the dance programs before they had completed the classes, and she worried about other parts of her students’ lives. “Some haven’t reached their potential in terms of education and employment,” she said.
In 1995, Perlo created the Dance Place Energizers for local youth. Energizers activities include lessons in life skills, arts & crafts, computer literacy, reading, writing, math, swimming, and community service. They also participate in African dance and drumming, modern dance, hip-hop, step, creative movement, and tumbling.
Then, in September 2010, Perlo launched NEXTlevel, a youth outreach program that while not specifically related to dance, still connects to the overarching goal of Dance Place. “It ties in to the Dance Place mission because the core of our mission is to transform lives through the performing arts and creative education programs.”
NEXTlevel is a way of transforming young adults who have slipped through the cracks in order to help them transition into meaningful careers and provide support for the future of their families,” says Perlo.
NEXTlevel currently works with 12 participants, developing life and career skills that will help them to reach the “next level” of their lives. “Every week we basically work toward everyone’s individual goals for themselves,” says Delante White, a current participant in the program.
The Thursday night meetings at Dance Place teach the participants how to set personal goals and give them the tools they need to achieve them and acquire the basic requirements in order to apply for jobs such as picture IDs, police clearances and personal bank accounts, Perlo explains. In addition, they learn specific life skills such as computer literacy and practice interviewing in order to find a job.
White describes exercises like creating a personal goal sheet for the near future. With the help of the NEXTlevel staff and the other participants, everyone fills in their own time frame, key people to contact, and the steps to achieving the goal. His goal, for example, was to start his own entertainment company. Every week, the other members helped him track his progress and he learned necessary administrative skills like how to use Excel and Word.
And last August, his work paid off and he started Level 7, which offers a variety of entertainment services and puts on events like birthday parties and happy hours.
White was one of the first members of Dance Place’s Energizers programs, which offers summer camps and leadership workshops for local youth and teens. So when a financial crunch forced him to drop out of college, he returned to Dance Place to ask Perlo for a job opportunity. “I needed to go back to where my roots are,” he says, adding that since Dance Place was a keystone of his old neighborhood, it felt like home.
He did get a job at Dance Place, and continues to work there as he develops his own business. Part-time employment at the studio is a major component of the NEXTlevel program, since many D.C. youth who struggle to continue their education or may have pol
ice records have difficulty finding employment, Perlo explains. D.C.’s unemployment rate is currently at 10.4 percent, up from 9.8 percent in June, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. This rate is significantly higher than Maryland’s, which is at an average of 7.1 percent, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
It’s certainly not a small problem to tackle, but the support and opportunities for employment have made a significant difference in the lives of NEXTlevel participants. “A lot of guys, if they weren’t working on their goals, they would be standing on the corner,” says White.
NEXTlevel has gotten them off the streets and created a welcoming, supportive community that is extremely important for helping each member to achieve their own goals. Perlo says that each member of NEXTlevel is, “fully integrated into the culture and love of the Dance Place family,” and White feels exactly the same way. “For me, it’s a family environment,” he says.
White hopes that NEXTlevel can expand its family in the coming years, welcoming participants as young as 16; currently the program only serves youth ages 18 to 29. Perlo intends to continue supporting the area youth in pursuing education and employment, but wants to shift the direction of the program to be more of a referral service to existing organizations. The greatest challenge for NEXTlevel has been “having enough staff and resources to stay with each young person,” Perlo says, so directing youth to established organizations could be a better use of their resources.
Using the skills he has learned through NEXTlevel, White hopes to expand his business and open his own club within the next five years. Also on his to-do list: buy a house and go back to school. Although he has been skeptical about returning to school, White says the support he has received from Perlo and everyone at NEXTlevel has inspired him to seriously pursue that goal. “I keep saying it’s too late—but Carla and Dance Place, they keep pushing me and telling me it’s never too late.”