By Dorany Pineda
LOS ANGELES — At 22, Lula Washington was told she was too old to start a dance career.
When she applied to UCLA’s dance program, she was rejected because of her age. But she didn’t take no for an answer, and so she wrote an appeal for admissions.
Her passionate letter caught the eye of a retiring dean, who believed someone that determined deserved a chance. Washington was accepted into the program.
Since then, her talent and influence has been widespread, particularly in African-American communities. In 1980, she and her husband, Erwin Washington, founded the Lula Washington Dance Theater in South Los Angeles, a nonprofit that trains young people to dance and helps them launch dancing careers.
“We started with nothing and now we’re a permanent vocation in the city of Los Angeles, with a permanent studio on Crenshaw Boulevard,” Lula Washington said. The idea for the organization began when Washington realized there weren’t many studios in the city for her to do what she loved.
“There wasn’t a place for her to dance, so she decided to create a place where local people could do modern dance, they could study it,” Erwin Washington said.
Since then, thousands of young people, adults and seniors have learned how to dance jazz, hip-hop, ballet, tap, African and more thanks to the organization’s programs and classes.
Beginning at age 3, children can attend after-school dance classes during the week. On Saturdays, classes are offered all day starting at 9 a.m.
Students between 7 and 17 years of age can join the Youth Dance Ensemble and are given the chance to perform all over the city. In the past, ensemble youth have danced for former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other political dignitaries and celebrities.
But from the start, Lula and Erwin Washington wanted their contemporary dance classes to reflect African-American culture and history.
Every year, for example, the nonprofit organizes and hosts a Kwanzaa festival in its Crenshaw studio for the community where dance students present dances they have learned to friends and family.
For many students, the training they have received from the nonprofit has allowed them to excel outside of the dance studio.
Some have earned scholarships from the American Ballet Theater in New York or landed jobs working on Broadway.
But for those who don’t dream of becoming professional dancers, the skills and lessons they learn taking dance classes can be applied elsewhere.
“We teach all of the dance styles with the idea that dance helps to build character, dance helps to build self-confidence and self-esteem,” Lula Washington said. Dancing, she said, can be enriching, build character, create a strong work ethic and inspire healthy, active lifestyles.
And the hard work and strong dancers the nonprofit has helped produce hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We’ve become a leading role model for dance organizations in California, and we’re recognized nationally for the work we’ve done, both socially and in our community,” Lula Washington said. “We’ve taken people of African-American decent all over the world. … Russia, China, Brazil…
“We’re providing a pathway to opportunities for young people. We’re helping their dreams come true of being a star, of being a dancer,” Lula said.
Executive director: Erwin Washington
Years in operation: 38
Number of staff: 33
Annual budget: $750,000
Location: 3773 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, 90016