Dancers start training early. It’s not unusual to see preschool children lined up at the barre, learning the knee bends known as pliés. Serious dancers, those who want to make dance their profession, have hundreds of hours of practice behind them by the time they reach their teens.
That’s not how it happened for Lula Washington. As a child, she never entered a dance studio. In high school, the extent of her dancing was a single physical education class. It wasn’t until she went to community college that she enrolled in a formal dance class - thanks to a teacher willing to overlook her lack of training.
A life-changing experience
On an October weekend in 1973, Lula Washington’s life changed entirely. Her dance teacher took her students to UCLA’s Royce Hall to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The regal Judith Jamison, who later succeeded Ailey as artistic director, was the star of the multiethnic company. For Washington, it was a revelation. “It was exciting to see black people on the stage,” Washington told an interviewer years later. “There had been no images of me or people who looked like me, on stage. Seeing Alvin Ailey’s troupe, I was blown away and thought, ‘Wow, this is possible! Look at all those people on stage dancing!’”
But she was already 22 years old when she applied to UCLA’s dance program as a transfer student - too old, the admission committee thought. Washington penned an impassioned appeal and came to campus to make her case in person. The school relented. Washington would go on to earn both a B.A. and an M.A. in dance.
By the time she finished her master’s degree in 1984, Washington and her husband, Erwin, had already established the company and school now known as Lula Washington Dance Theatre. In the perennially underfunded, uncertain world of dance, her company and school have kept the doors open since 1979.
Across the world and otherworldly
As dancer, teacher and choreographer, Washington has created a modern dance company of polish and power. The company travels the world: Lula Washington Dance Theatre has performed in 150 U.S. cities, large and small, as well as in Germany, Spain, Kosovo, Mexico, Canada, China and Russia. Dancers trained by the company have also gone on to careers with other dance companies — including Alvin Ailey.
Washington is also known for incorporating ritual into her work. That’s one of the reasons director James Cameron chose her as the choreographer for Avatar. Using special suits to digitally capture their movements, her dancers breathed life into the otherworldly Na'vi.
Dance and life lessons
Yet professional dance is only part of Lula Washington’s story. More than 40,000 South Los Angeles children have taken classes at her school, and thousands more have been touched by outreach efforts in Southern California and wherever the company is on tour.
Whether the children are studying modern, jazz, ballet, African dance, Caribbean or tap, they are learning life lessons in the dance studio: focus, persistence and discipline. In “balance studies,” a group of children work together to create an interconnected unit, literally lifting one another up and learning to lean on the group’s strength.
Lula Washington defied expectations when she became a dancer, choreographer, teacher and community leader. Her formula for success is something she tells all her dancers, from the 3-year-olds at a Kwanzaa celebration to the high-energy professionals: “All things are possible if you focus, pay attention, study and listen.”
--Tribune Content Solutions for UCLA