Lula Washington continues to excel 30 years later
The Lula Washington Dance Theatre has performed across the United States and all over the world in major theaters.
Lula Washington was inspired to dance at an early age. With her inspiration, she ultimately made the decision to share the gift of dance to young people, particularly those in the lower-income areas of Los Angeles County. The Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT) was established in 1980 in the Crenshaw district and it will be celebrating its 30-year anniversary with a series of performances throughout the city. It is an accomplishment that Mrs. Washington takes great pride in. “I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to make a difference in the community,” she says. “Someone who showed there is power in dance.
“I’ve often said, ‘If you can dance, you can do anything.’ If you have the courage to walk out on a stage and dance before people you don’t know, you have the courage to do anything.”
Washington was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1950 and her family moved out to Los Angeles when she was five years old. Educated scholastically in the Los Angeles Unified School District, she started dancing seriously at Washington Prep at the age of 16. She was in an Exercise to Music class and found her calling. “I never wanted to be anything else other than a dancer,” Washington said.
Her earliest memories of dance stem from her childhood, as her father would come home on his payday (usually a Friday or Saturday) and the family would put on music and the family and friends who were invited over would start to dance. “Everyone was like, ‘OK, let’s put on some music and dance!’ Dad would have friends over and we would have orange soda and barbecue potato chips. We would dance around the house. I was about 14 or 15.”
With that dancing spirit cultivated in her formative years, Washington began her collegiate career at Harbor Junior College, then transferred to Los Angeles Trade Technical College. “When I was in college, my professor took us to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater,” she said. “When I saw them on the stage performing, I realized the possibility as an African American, for me, to do that. I didn’t think I could do that before because I had never seen African Americans on TV doing it.”
Shortly thereafter, Washington applied to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) dance program. She was initially rejected by the program. Its reason for denying her was that she was “too old” at the age of 22 to begin a dance career. The dancer was a determined woman, however, and with the assistance of her husband Edwin, wrote a compelling, impassioned letter that appealed for admission. A retiring dean was moved by the passion of the letter and arranged an interview with her to meet her in person. She promised the retiring dean that she would work hard and not let him down if he granted her admission. Washington’s appeal was granted as the departing administrator told her that anyone with her drive and determination deserved an opportunity.
While enrolled at UCLA, the dance major danced in the Academy Awards telecast; in “Funny Lady” with Barbara Streisand; in the 1976 remake of “King Kong”; and with singers Al Green and Cher. She also established the Black Dance Association at UCLA and brought other ethnic artists to the UCLA campus. Ultimately, Washington earned a master’s degree in dance from UCLA.
After graduation, Washington started the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre. It would later be named the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Through the leadership of Lula and Edwin Washington, the dance company would go on to be one of the most successful schools of dance in the nation. The Lula Washington Dance Theatre has performed across the United States and all over the world in major theaters.
Her stellar work with LWDT caught the attention of famed film director James Cameron ( “Titanic,” “The Terminator,” “Strange Days” ). He enlisted her and members of the Dance Theatre to provide the choreography and the dance doubles for his 2009 blockbuster film, “Avatar.” Cameron was looking for a choreographer to show the movement of the characters that he was developing. “James Cameron had a couple of his people looking for a choreographer who could do what he envisioned,” she explained. “I was one of the choreographers that they were looking at. From what I understand, my name kept coming up. I had never met or worked with him before.
“When we had the interview, he explained to me what he wanted to do. James said he was looking for a choreographer who could create a language and movement for a tribal community of people. Within that, they would have ways of worshiping, walking, running and communicating,” Washington said. “And it would be their form of communication in a non-verbal form.
“When they accepted people into the tribe they would always lay hands and they would paint their faces,” she added. “Well, we know in various African communities, that is a ritual.”
The routine and rituals of the dance theatre are important to the UCLA alumnus. She finds it troubling that, as a result of the economic recession that the U.S. is currently dealing with, fine arts programs are being cut from the curriculums of schools across that nation. “What I find most distressing,” she emphasizes, “is that studies show that students perform well in the classroom when they are involved in the arts. They do better on their tests. They have better focus.
“I think it’s sad that arts are being eliminated from the schools,” she lamented. “Our dance theatre lost $200,000 worth of contracts because we were in schools throughout L.A. doing six- to eight-week programs. People don’t understand the value of the arts to students’ development.” Washington also cited how students of The Lula Washington Dance Theatre used the techniques and dance strategies to help them learn algebraic and geometry formulas in there mathematical studies. Additionally, she stressed that the work ethic that is cultivated in the arts—whether it be dance, music, or visual—influences students to be of the mindset to utilize discipline and strong effort.
The 30th anniversary is a celebration of those efforts and Washington and the theatre promise an enjoyable performance for those in attendance as the company tours Southern California. She indicated that the dance theatre will be performing choreographed pieces that pay homage to great dance pioneers . “We will be doing a beautiful piece by Christopher Huggins called ‘Love Is,’” Washington said. “It is done as a solo, duet, trio, and group act.
“We are also performing a classical piece of choreography by Donald McHale, the pioneering choreographer whose dance company Alvin Ailey came from, called ‘Songs of the Disinherited,’ she said.
Opportunities to see the Lula Washington Dance Theatre in the Southland will be Friday, April 30, as it celebrates National Dance Week at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center. On Saturday, May 15, the dance theatre will celebrate its 30th anniversary in the Los Angeles area at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University, Los Angeles, recognizing three decades of excellence in dance.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT) will join the Keshet Chayim Dance Ensemble, the Agape International Choir, Grammy winner Macy Gray, pioneer female rapper MC Lyte, Israeli song sensation Haral Skaat and R&B singer Abraham McDonald for an evening of dance and music Sunday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater.
“For every one honoree, there are thousands of other African American women [who] also deserve to be recognized. As a people, we should acknowledge and pay homage to African American women, not just for one day or one week or one month, but every day of the year.” — Skip Cooper, president, Black Business Association
Six California women will get at least a portion of their historical and honorary due at a luncheon at the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles on Saturday.
Marcia Owens Johnson teaches classical ballet and yoga to anyone who will let her. Until she retired from corrections recently, that meant mainly children and inmates at Lancaster State Prison.
Johnson is almost 65, and has been either dancing or teaching dance for 58 years.
“I come from a long history of dance,” said Johnson. “My forte is dance. That’s where my desire and heart have always been.”
The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) preserves and promotes dance by people of African ancestry or origin, and assists and increases opportunities for artists in networking, funding, performance, education, audience development, touring and advocacy.
Playing in regional theaters outside the major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg as part of a six-week tour, the Los Angeles-based troupe is finding an excitement about dance all over the nation. “Although we are a modern dance company, we are nevertheless seen as ‘the ballet’ and given the VIP treatment,” said Washington. “Resident artists vacate their regular dressing rooms for us. Some want autographs or pictures with us.”