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Dance Foundation » About Lula Washington

Lula Washington is Founder and Artistic Director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT). Lula founded the Company in 1980 with her husband Erwin Washington to provide a creative outlet for minority dance artists in the inner city. Today, Lula and her Company are revered across the United States and around the world. The Company has danced in over 150 cities in the United States, as well as abroad in Germany, Spain, Kosovo, Mexico, Canada, China, and Russia.

Beginnings in Dance

Lula stumbled upon modern dance at Harbor Community College, where a dance instructor introduced her to the work of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Mesmerized by the beauty of Ailey’s dancers, Lula decided to pursue dance as a career. Soon afterward, Lula applied to University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) dance program and was rejected. The University said she was too old at age 22 to begin a dance career. By this time, Lula was already married to her husband and raising a small child, Tamica.

Unwilling to take no for an answer, Lula sent in an impassioned appeal for admission. A retiring dean was moved by the passion in the letter and called Lula in to meet her in person. Lula promised she would work hard and not let him down if he let her into the school. The dean granted her appeal as his last act before packing his bags to retire, saying that anyone with her determination, drive and eloquence deserved a chance. Lula was admitted into UCLA.

While pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Dance at UCLA, Lula performed in the Academy Awards telecast, the film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band, and with singers Cher and Al Green. She also danced in “Funny Lady” with Barbara Striesand, the television show Komedy Tonight, the film King Kong, and many other shows. She also established the Black Dance Association at UCLA, bringing artists of color to the UCLA campus, and found time to dance with local dance companies and choreographers including Margalite Oved, R’Wanda Lewis, Thelma Robinson, and William Couser.

The Start of a Legacy

Lula Washington in "Communion," choreographed by Donald Byrd for her Dance Company.

Desiring to build a repertoire company that would perform her own unique, risk-taking, experimental works, as well as the works of legendary pioneers in African-American dance, Lula established the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, later renamed to its current name, Lula Washington Dance Theatre.
 

Since its early beginnings, the Company has secured works by Donald McKayle, Katherine Dunham, Donald Byrd, Rennie Harris, Christopher Huggins, Raymond Johnson, Raymond Sawyer, Louis Johnson, Rudy Perez, L. Martina Young, and many others.

In 1983, Lula established her own dance school and provided low cost and free dance classes to neighborhood children through an after school program called “I Do Dance, Not Drugs!” Remembering her own impoverished childhood, she wanted to make dance classes affordable for and accessible to children from low income neighborhoods, where her studio is based.

Since then, the School has taught dance to over 45,000 inner-city students.

A Teacher, Leader, Dancer, and Choreographer

Lula is admired as a teacher, leader, dancer, and choreographer with a very unique style and approach to dance. Stylistically, Lula fuses African and Afro-Haitian dance. She also incorporates the dance styles of gospel church, classical ballet, modern, street, theatrical, hip hop, while drawing from various ideas and issues. Her works have been praised by critics for their strong political and social commentary, as well as their avant-garde composition and their roots in African-American culture.

Lula is able to make use of her dance studio, company members, students and teachers for major projects, including her most recent accomplishment, AVATAR.

In preparation for AVATAR, Director James Cameron asked Lula how his Na Vi people might greet each other and move. Lula suggested that he use the “third eye – I See You” concept with one hand touching the center of the forehead and then extending away. Her idea became a central focus to the film. Lula spent 2007 and 2008 creating cultural/ritual movements including war scenes, hunting and large dance sequences for the motion capture technology.

Prior to AVATAR, Lula choreographed Disney’s The Little Mermaid movie. One of the songs that she choreographed, “Under The Sea”, won an Academy Award.

Lula has been the subject of several nationally broadcast news stories including a PBS special that focused on her choreography for “Gospel Kwanzaa” – a blending of gospel and African dance in salute of the Christmas and Kwanzaa holidays.

In 1995, NASA selected Lula to choreograph for its Mars Millennium Project educational video that depicts dance in the first human colony on Mars.

Recognition and Acclaim

Lula has received numerous awards and honors. She was the first woman to earn the Minerva Award from the State of California and First Lady Maria Shriver.

Lula’s works have been commissioned by major foundations and dance presenting institutions, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the James Irvine Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and AT&T.

Lula’s awards include the 2007 “Carter G. Woodson Civil Rights Award” from the National Education Association” for her “Reflections In Black” school performance program; the “2009 Uncommon Angel Award” from the LA Commons organization for “transforming the face of Crenshaw Boulevard” by relocating her dance studio there; and the $25,000 Rosenfeld Prize from UCLA for bringing “Reflections In Black” to thousands of school children annually at UCLA Royce Hall. Lula also shared the “Integrity Award” with actress Loretta Devine at the L.A. Women’s Theater Festival in 2007.

Lula Washington in painting by actress Jane Seymour for the Red Dress Healthy Heart project.

Lula was also chosen by actress Jane Seymour to be part of her Red Dress Project, formed to bring attention to the issue of heart disease among women and encouraging women to fight the disease by staying active. Jane Seymour’s representation of Lula in her painting celebrates dance, specifically African dance, as an activity that can help build healthy hearts.
 

Lula has dozens of other accolades including the 2003 “Lady of Wisdom Lifetime Achievement Award” from the from the Modie Bell Senior Citizen’s Foundation; the 2002 “Master of the Arts Award” presented by Recycling Black Dollars for her tireless commitment to dance; the 2001 “Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Performing Artists in Schools Association for her work to bring dance into classrooms at public schools; the 2001 “Educator of the Year Award” presented at the 7th Annual American Choreography Awards Gala; the 2001 “KCET Celebrating The Women of Our Community” Award; the 2000 “Lifetime Achievement Award” presented at Dance Fest 2000 for her concert dance work in Los Angeles; and the 2000 “Lester Horton Award for Sustained Achievement” presented by the The Dance Resource Center in recognition of her 20 years of continuous excellence in dance in Los Angeles.

In the Press

Jennifer Dunning at the New York Times described Lula as “a gifted original.” Despite her success, Lula remains a down-to-earth artist, activist, and leader, committed to her art and her community.

“[Lula]’s stature as an expresser of inner-city culture has become as distinctive and important as the socially revelatory work of such enormous talents as Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp.” –Reno-Gazette Journal

“Live jazz. Athletic bodies, jumping and undulating. Rousing, infectiously enthusiastic performances by fine dancers.” –New York Times

“Ms. Washington’s choreographic vocabulary comprises modern dance, low crouching and stamping movements inspired by African dance and, occasionally, ballet. It’s a perfectly pleasant and functional mix, and in “We Wore the Mask” Ms. Washington displays a sure theatricality that is captivating.” –New York Times

“The smart, strong and energetic Lula Washington Dance Theatre, celebrating its 25th anniversary …proved that American dance is alive, well and growing out west. The handsome multi-ethnic company of 10 dancers provided an evening-long explosion of style and attitude.” This is an exciting company that inspires optimism about the future of American dance. –Sheila Abrams, New Jersey Recorder

“Ms. Washington is an original, in part because of the concern for social issues that informs some of her dances and the gentle but persistent way she addresses those issues.” –Jennifer Dunning, New York Times