The packed building vibrates with energy. Lively rhythms echo through the multi-colored walls and children stream in and out of multiple studio classrooms.
“Students that come here develop lifetime friendships,” says Lula Washington, the co-founder of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. “From the mothers to the fathers to the grandparents, everyone will remain friends forever because they met here at this dance studio.”The Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT) company has become an invaluable cultural fixture of the South Los Angeles community in the past 38 years. In 2000, Lula Washington and her husband, Erwin Washington, outbid Magic Johnson to buy a new building for their acclaimed dance company and moved their studio from Adams Boulevard to Crenshaw Boulevard near the coliseum. Through the styles of African and Afro-Haitian dance, Lula has moved countless audiences around the world. But for aspiring dancers in South Los Angeles, Lula has done so much more.
She’s given them a second home.
On Saturday mornings in particular, the building becomes a hub. Similar to the way men in the community bring their sons to the barbershop, parents bring their children to Lula’s to reconnect with the community.
“It’s serving as a social place where issues can be discussed, friendships can be developed, and camaraderie for the community is created,” Washington said in an interview.
Anyone who enters the purple building on Crenshaw Boulevard will immediately consider the magnitude of Lula Washington’s accomplishments.
Washington is responsible for significant contributions to the Leimert Park community and the entertainment industry at large. Among Washington’s credits are performances at Taste of Soul and various Leimert Park festivals, choreography for James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” and performances in the Academy Awards telecast and the films “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band” and “Funny Lady.” The choreographer graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Master of Fine Arts in Dance in 1984. Washington was also one of the five founding members of the International Association of Blacks in Dance.
Upon entering the former airplane hangar, the multifarious plaques and awards delineating these feats are eye-catchers.
But the real tell, is Lula Washington herself.
The woman is a force, she is undeniably the magnetic center of any room she walks into. Dressed in all black--her posture is decisive--her movements are languid. She walks as if through the eye of a storm.
At this moment, Washington sits at the front desk. She addresses a girl who pops in through the front door. Washington compliments the young girl’s haircut; it has changed since the last time she saw her. The girl smiles and bobs her way to Studio A.
Upstairs, Erwin Washington and Tamica Washington-Miller, Erwin and Lula’s daughter, oversee administrative tasks.
“In the eighties, when the company first started, there were only a handful of dance companies, that were very specifically catering to African-American kids, Mexican kids, or people with no money,” says Tamica Washington-Miller, the associate director of the organization.
Washington-Miller bears a striking resemblance to her mother--her curls frame her heart-shaped face. She rearranges some papers on her desk.
“There are a lot of organizations that have modeled themselves off of the work that we do,” Washington-Miller says.
Although Tamica’s mother is the figurehead of the organization, each member of the Washington family is essential for the administrative and creative elements to run smoothly.
“It’s been the three of us since the beginning. I’m an only child but the truth is that I would consider this organization my sibling,” Washington-Miller says.
The dance-oriented family gave their lives to the maintenance of the company and of the foundation. According to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre website, the school has instructed over 45,000 inner-city students since 1983. The Company has danced everywhere from Germany to Spain, Kosovo, Mexico, Canada, China, and Russia.
Washington-Miller grew up with the company, learning the labyrinth of mechanisms that keeps the creative machine running. Now, she feels ready to take on future responsibilities.
“We are figuring out this dynamic day by day. I really want my parents golden years to be golden--I don’t want them to be stressing out over how the organization is being run.”
She meets the eyes of her father who sits in an office diagonal from her desk.
“Having performing arts and visual arts, institutions and anchors, small or big, in every community, from the poorest, even up into the most affluent, is so necessary,” Washington-Miller says.
Dancers move to South Los Angeles from all over the country to work with Lula Washington.
“The draw to being at Lula’s is that she has a holistic approach,” said Tehran Dixon, one of the newest members of the LWDT company.
The 27-year old sent in an audition to the company on the recommendation of a friend. In September, she moved to Los Angeles from Chicago to join the company.
Washington prides herself on the fact that her company contributes “culture arts, creativity, safety, and opportunity” to the community. So, she is very picky about the attributes a dancer must have to join her company.
“She wants someone who has a certain amount of spirit that can take the movement and make it their own, put their own pieces of life experience inside of the step and be flexible enough to let the step live,” Dixon said in an interview.
Back downstairs, Washington sits to watch rehearsal. A young man in a sweat-drenched white tank top moves in passionate motions across the wooden floor. This young man, Washington says, is a company hopeful, an apprentice. He’s got spirit, she acknowledges, but he’s not quite ready for the company--not yet.
“A dancer can be talented but spiritless,” she says. “You can be a great technician but be an empty vessel. A good dancer, to me, can express and emotion or idea and change the way an audience member views a certain issue.”
Her eyes track the apprentice as he jumps forward into a deep lunge.
“Some are born with it, they are born with the gift of movement and that’s all they want to do,” she says.
Dancing without heart, she states, is not dancing.
“Art is spiritual,” she says. “Dance forms character from the viewpoint that everybody wants to have a voice, in dance you express your voice through movement.”
The Lula Washington Dance School, Washington says, gives the inner-city kids an opportunity to find their voices.
Students who enroll can learn the dance styles of gospel church, classical ballet, modern, street, theatrical, and more. From classes for tots, to professional development intensive classes for intermediate to advanced teens and adults, a myriad of students are accommodated.
“We provide a creative outlet for young people who are interested in the art of dance,” Washington says. “We make a difference in the lives of the students who take class here and we inspire those who come to see our company when we tour.”
The Lula Washington Dance Theatre company incorporates an intricate tapestry of these elements to emphasize specific social issues.
Washington says the motivation behind three decades of hard work, was and is solely to make important art. She’s firm on her stance; she is not interested in show business.
“We don’t call what we do shows--we call what we do cultural art,” Washington says. “Our pieces aren’t created for the sole purpose of creating a lot of money, they’re created to depict a creative interpretation or viewpoint on a social issue.”
Dixon, who also teaches the students at the LWDT Dance School, has noted the benefits of the program.
“Dancing at Lula’s makes young dancers culturally more expansive,” Dixon said.
The young dancers have the opportunity to explore Afrocentric and African heritage through cultural performances like the company’s holiday Kwanzaa pieces.
“Coming every day after school to learn something new, it’s making them culturally broader, so the kids aren’t just pigeon-holed into doing what other kids their ages are doing,” Dixon said.
According to the Better Health Channel, dancing provides many benefits during critical stages of development including increased physical confidence, improved mental functioning, stronger bone density, and heightened memory.
“The joy is in giving them that small piece of motivation--the lesson that you can accomplish anything if you apply yourself,” Dixon added.
Over the years, Washington’s peers moved their studios to other places in Los Angeles like Culver City and Long Beach. Washington wanted to stay in her own community in South Los Angeles. She wishes to keep it there for as long as she can.
“The truth of the matter is the black community is dwindling, they can’t afford to live in the city anymore and with gentrification surrounding Crenshaw and Leimert Park, there’s a concern with what is going to happen to the kids that are being displaced,” Washington-Miller said in an interview.
The LWDT mission is to accommodate students that are willing and ready to dedicate their time to learning the art of dance. The foundation partners with local high schools such as Dorsey High School and offers merit scholarships for low-income students.
The company is not at risk of losing the building because they own it. However, the demographic of young dancers the foundation serves might change along with South Los Angeles. Still, the Washington family remains adamant about serving the community’s needs, even as it changes.
“A space to be creative and to be with a wide range of people who believe a bunch of different things. Having that space is a critical thing to humanity,” Washington-Miller says, gathering her belongings.
Washington-Miller walks down the stairs and weaves through the crowded hallways, greeting familiar faces as she walks toward the front door. She bids a silent goodbye to her honorary sibling and exits into the night.