LOS ANGELES — It was the end of her recent show, “The 40th Anniversary of Lula Washington Dance Theatre,” presented by The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Washington, looking fluidly chic in a black head wrap, loose black shirt and pants, walked off the stage, went into the lobby and thanked the audience for spending the second of a three-night run at the theater in support of her and her dance company.
Then she, and the hundreds who were in attendance, appropriately raised a glass of champagne to salute her life’s work.
The founder and artistic director of her namesake Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Lula Washington has long cemented her status as a creative driving force.
A powerhouse in the dance community, Washington, who grew up in Watts, is one of those individuals who is not content to rest on her laurels. Always shifting into innovative and creative gears, Washington is always looking for something new to learn and explore in the world of dance.
That’s because to hear her tell it – there is “something about dance.” For her, there is something internally and viscerally rewarding about truly moving an audience.
She got the chance to “move” the movie-going audience when she was selected to choreograph the ritual movement and created body language for the indigenous people, Na’vi, in James Cameron’s hit film, “Avatar.” It’s an achievement she relishes because she was able to employ many of her own dancers in the film.
Talking to Washington, it’s abundantly clear that she has a wickedly funny aspect to an intently serious demeanor. She’ll say something funny, but there is always an underlying weightiness to her prose. She’s easily approachable, but the energy that surrounds her reminds you she doesn’t have a lot of time for frivolity.
“There is too much work to do.”
To Washington and her husband, Erwin Washington’s credit, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, which they founded in 1980, has risen to become one of the most admired African-American contemporary dance companies in the West — known for powerful, high-energy dancing, unique choreography and exceptional educational residencies.
It was 50 years ago, on Jan. 25, 1970, that Erwin and Lula got married and never looked back.
Washington said she and her husband make a great team.
“Working with Erwin is special because he always likes to be in the background,” Lula Washington said. “I tell him to stop staying on the sideline. He has always been here for this organization and a protector of the organization. One hundred percent of the success is because of him.”
That being said, both she and her husband admit working with a spouse can sometimes get a bit lively.
“Dance is a difficult field,” Erwin Washington said, added that he and Lula were high school sweethearts. “It can put wear and tear on a relationship.”
“We fight all the time because we’re both vested in the organization,” Lula Washington said. “We fight about directions we should go in and what jobs we should take.
It’s not a bad thing. It’s defending your concepts and ideas. It’s being able to get along at the end of the day.”
According to Lula Washington, it’s about one person trying to get their viewpoint across.
“We do performance art all the time,” she said. “Some view it as yelling and screaming. This is our process. This is how it goes. We go to development conferences together. Sometimes we take my road, sometimes his road and now, sometimes a third person — my daughter, Tamica (Washington-Miller).
“We’re here 40 years later. We own our own building. It was $1.3 million. The building is paid for. Hard work and dedication have put us where we are.”
Erwin Washington remembers the day he and Lula decided to open a dance company.
“We were sitting in the living room,” he said. “Lula was sitting on the floor. She loves to sit on the floor. She told me her vision, which was to create a place in the community where young dancers could get nurtured, learn the craft of dance andpractice their art form. I said to her, ‘Wouldn’t you like to tour around the world and have a dance company like Alvin Ailey?’
She said, ‘Yeah, that would be nice too.’ We put both our visions together. Everything we wrote down 40 years ago we’ve done.”
“It went so quick,” Lula Washington said. “It’s never been boring or repetitive or dull. The years careened by. You stay busy. There is always ongoing activity. Always fundraising and marketing.”
Lula Washington’s goal has always been to give back.
“I wanted dance introduced to my community — so they could experience it at an early age,” she said. “I wanted to give that to them. The arts help people heal.”
The company is comprised of young, athletic dancers, many of whom were groomed in Washington’s inner-city dance studio. While she encourages her dancers to be excellent performers, an activist in her own right, she also emphasizes the importance of being leaders in their communities.
Believing in the universality of dance, over the years Washington has exerted a great deal of influence both domestically and internationally.
Her dance theater has expanded its reach globally, performing in 150 U.S. cities, as well as tours in Germany, Russia, China and Israel.
Although she has made an impact on dance in Los Angeles and worldwide, Lula Washington is too busy to think about it. She’s always on to the next move.
“I don’t pay attention to whether I’ve made an impact,” she said. “I don’t want to step back and look. I know what we’ve done for homeless kids who wanted to dance. I know about the donations we give and the free rehearsal space we give to emerging choreographers. Whenever I go to see something, I see 10 of the people we trained. I don’t’ want to look back — I want to keep going forward.”
The world of dance is very competitive. Lula Washington has learned not to let what the Joneses are doing bother her. She has her own way of setting herself apart.
“I do it by being who I am,” she said. “I know my self worth and value. It doesn’t matter to me. Bella Lewitzky told me when she saw some of my work, ‘Don’t pay attention to anyone else. Focus on your voice and your art.’ I’m respectful of everyone. We are all individuals.”
Keeping the doors open at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre is no small feat.
Erwin Washington said he is always writing grants.
“He’s been very successful,” Lula Washington said. “We were able to pay our dancers through a grant so that we could help to subsidize them. The grant came from the California Arts Council. Tamica has also made relationships with several high schools. Our whole dance company got a chance to participate in ‘Avatar’ to assist me on the set.”
The Washingtons’ hard work has paid off. Over the years the dance company has been recognized for its achievements.
The Washingtons were recognized at the 2018 Dance/USA Annual Conference with the Dance/USA Champion Award for their impact on dance.
The Champion Award is given to an organization, business, foundation, or individual in appreciation of their achievements, leadership, outstanding service and dedicated efforts that have sustained and significantly advanced the dance field in the annual conference host city.
They also have received the National Endowment for the Arts choreography fellowship, California Dance Educators Award of Excellence and a Woman of the Year Award from the California State Legislature.
“Awards are important because it shows you have made achievements,” Lula Washington said. “You would like them to turn into real cash, though – so you can keep your organization going.”
To Lula Washington, dance is more than just bodies moving, it’s a vital human experience.
“Dancing is important,” she explained. “It helps people to express their feelings and emotions. It helps the mind and creates freedom and joy. If you don’t have movement, you’d never feel that. We all come into life moving. Our heart is moving. Dancing builds self-esteem. It’s a way of communicating.”
For Lula Washington, dance accomplishes the ability to present history and culture and stories about the community through movement.
“It’s spiritual and healing,” she said. “You can look at a hand gesture and be brought to tears. Whole lives can be changed. You can only see it one time that way. The next time you see it — there is always something different.”
For 40 years, Lula Washington has always tried to stay a step ahead of the dance curve. She has found over the years, that her approach to dance has changed.
“It has changed because I want to be able to have more money to create and present works the way I want them to be seen,” said Lula Washington. “If I have a mountain in a piece, then I want a mountain on stage. All things cost money. It would be nice to have a waterfall on the stage.”
The creative spirit within Lula Washington thinks it would be nice to have funds to build her ideal environment.
“You gotta have financial support so you can have sound, music, light, and computer,” she said. “It would be nice to create dance with technology.”
Working hard to keep her dance company running, Lula Washington admits it’s very rarely, if ever, that she has time to let her hair down.
“There is no time to relax when you run a dance company,” she said. “We might go to a movie or play or hear some music, but usually we are unconsciously working. At home, we’re talking about stuff we have to do.”
She was born to dance. Although she didn’t start out that way, she always knew her life would be filled with dance. After she dove headfirst into the profession, there was no turning back.
“There was no Plan B,” she said. “I always knew dance was going to work out. Now, I tell people to have a Plan A, B, and C. I worked at a hospital, I was an inhalation therapist. I hated that. And because I hated that, I honed my teaching skills. I’m glad I did.”
Lula Washington didn’t start dancing until she was 22, which is considered too old for a dancer.
She has advice for anyone who thinks they are too old to do anything.
“You’re never too old if that’s what you want to do,” she said. “If you still want to — just start.”
Lula Washington’s journey to success hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. She said she did it through self-determination and persistence.
“When you believe in yourself and work hard and fill a void — that’s something other people recognize as well,” she said. “I had something important to say.”