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The Modern Dance Community Thrives on Crenshaw

On the bustling corner of Crenshaw and Coliseum sits a gold and black mural with prominent West African adinkra symbols and the words “Dance Lives Here.” It is the home of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, a Los Angeles dance institution since 1980 which houses a dance school for young people ages three through 21 along with a world-renowned modern dance repertoire.

Lula Washington Dance Theatre is a family affair. The company and school was founded by Lula Washington and her husband Erwin, and is co-managed by their daughter Tamica; all of whom grew up in South Los Angeles. Their mission is twofold: to build a world-class contemporary modern dance company that travels worldwide with work that reflects African-American history and culture, and to create a school in the inner city where young people can learn the art of dance. The Washingtons use dance to “motivate, educate, inspire, challenge and enrich young people so they can become successful and productive citizens” because they know firsthand the transformative power of this art form.

"Dance Lives Here" mural on Crenshaw
"Dance Lives Here" mural outside the Lula Washington Dance Theatre | Janna Zinzi

The Washingtons started the dance company to fill a void where they lived and in the broader dance world. “Everything I’ve done was basically because there was a need, a desire and passion to share and express my creative voice. And to participate in an art form where I didn’t see a lot of black dancers and choreographers when I was growing up,” explains Lula.

As a young woman trying to figure out her life path after high school, dance was the only thing that moved her. “Dance saved my life,” Lula recalls. After seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater at UCLA, she felt inspired and knew she could succeed in dance. Seeing black performers on stage was important because she’d never been to a dance performance before, but there she saw herself. Lula, then a mother of two-year-old Tamica, applied to the UCLA Dance Department and was rejected but she did not give up on her dream. She and her husband Erwin, a student in the English department there, worked together to get her passionate appeal for admission approved.

Once accepted into the dance department at UCLA, she made a name creating opportunities for black students when the faculty wouldn’t. There were no regular staff black professors and rarely any black choreographers or lecturers, so she organized and brought in local legends like Donald McKayle, Lester Wilson and Claude Thompson. When she and her other black colleagues were told that they should choreograph only to classical music instead of black music that inspired them, she produced her own shows to showcase her work as she wanted it. She created the UCLA Black Dance Association because her pieces, and that of other black students, were consistently rejected by the white professors who were auditioning them.

Lula Washington in her dance studio
Lula Washington in her dance studio | Getty Images

Lula and Erwin shared a similar passion for telling the stories and history of black people through art and created work together. “The Whip,” for example, was a history of black people in the United States. It was produced and written by Erwin and choreographed by Lula.

“Lula and I learned how to get the money, how to write grants to and how to do it for ourselves, so when we left, we continued doing it for ourselves,” Erwin affirmed. “We built this and bought this [referring to the dance company and the property it occupies]; that UCLA background gave us the foundation to do that.”

Lula remembers, “I appreciated the opportunity to explore other choreographic voices but always knew I had my own voice and wanted to provide opportunities for choreographers and dancers to share their voices because our stories are different from many other cultural groups. Dance is a way to shine a light on culture, history, community, issues and viewpoints that were different but still of value.”

This foundation is the crux of what Lula Washington Dance Theatre is about and why it still exists today.

Watch "Open Your Eyes: Lula Washington Dance Theater"

Throughout her years as a dancer, choreographer and teacher Lula created work that reflected what she saw in her community and what was happening politically and socially around the world. Coming up in the 1960s and 70s during active protest movements, she was influenced to use art to share stories about black people’s history and current experiences. She grew up in Watts during the 1965 Rebellion and created pieces addressing it and what followed in 1992. Her work covers Nelson Mandela, responses to current police killings of black people, slavery, homelessness and domestic violence. They have traveled with this work domestically and internationally changing perceptions of African-American dance and who African-Americans really are as opposed to what’s portrayed on exported TV shows.

While these pieces can be transformative experiences for the dancer and the viewer, it continues to make people uncomfortable and challenge the dance establishment. Lula said that immediately after the beating of Rodney King, many people in the dance community asked how she felt about the issue. She responded by creating work to address that question. “At that time, there was a lot of frustration, anger, sadness, depression, even among my dance company members,” Lula notes. “People didn’t know what to do so we started working on a piece called ‘Check This Out’. That was a way to have healing and to do something creative. Instead of them being frustrated and wanting to throw a rock, they were able to do something positive and creative to heal themselves and see the situation as it was and what was happening politically.”

Yet the same people who wanted to know Lula’s opinion shunned her after she presented her response via dance. “After we did the dance, we thought we’d get a lot of work because people were so interested,” Lula explained. “Instead people stopped talking to us, would literally turn their back when they saw us.” Erwin noted that often white audiences would sit stunned, in apparent discomfort and shock, sometimes without applauding while black audiences stood and cheered.  Their friends of various ethnicities told them it was too “raw” for non-black audiences. Both Lula and Erwin, who is often behind the scenes handling the business and finances of the theatre, noted that it affected their ability to raise money and get booked. But it didn’t stop them from staying true to their art and using their platform to reflect Black culture and history. “I’m not changing the work,’” Lula asserts, “so I made a point that when we were hired to show this piece whether they liked it or not. They don’t have to bring me back, but they will see it this year!”

An integral part of ensuring that black voices were represented in the Los Angeles dance community is owning a space in their home neighborhood to carry on the legacy of dance as healing and storytelling. As Margalynne Armstrong writes in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, “It is important to understand that property is invested with much more than economic attributes. Property incorporates morality and psychology, provides a means of connection between generations in the family (legacy), and is a tool for controlling behavior.”

Lula always wanted to have a studio on Crenshaw Boulevard because of its importance and prominence in the African-American community. She notes that their studio is amongst many black-owned businesses and cultural institutions like the Los Angeles Sentinel (one of the largest African-American newspapers in the western U.S.), West Angeles Church and Angelus Funeral home; it’s a cultural icon that is referenced in movies, TV and music. By owning the property it operates in, cultural institutions are less susceptible to the demands of the market and are able to continue to serve its community. Income or profits that would otherwise go to less invested entities are instead kept within the community, to be re-invested in the growth of their stakeholders.

UCLA Dancers
Lula Washington at UCLA | Chamaine Jefferson

Tamica Washington Miller, the daughter of Erwin and Lula, recalls growing up and seeing many of her parents’ dance contemporaries struggle to maintain their own space in Los Angeles. In the early days of the company, Lula and Erwin spent a lot of time at the Inner City Cultural Center which was a major hub for artists of color. As that space was having issues with their lease, the Washingtons knew they needed to own something and in 1988 bought their first studio on Adams through a friend who could no longer maintain it. Erwin and Lula refinanced their house and loaned the dance company $65,000 as a down payment. “Owning that building was a step forward in wealth for the organization because we became legitimate stakeholders,” Tamica said. Then the 1994 Northridge earthquake happened, demolishing the building and leaving the Washingtons without a dance home for six months.

Still determined to have their own studio, Erwin identified $3 million to build a new dance studio and an arts complex along Adams Boulevard. A prominent architect donated plans for the new project. But the City Redevelopment Agency blocked the building permit for the new building because they had plans with developers to create a complex of big box stores. The developer tried to buy out the Washingtons offering a price that was too low for them to buy another site. Unable to build because of the blockage, the dance company filed an inverse condemnation lawsuit that was eventually settled when the redevelopment project collapsed. During this time Erwin had the foresight to purchase the building on Crenshaw using funds originally intended for the Adams space. After the lawsuit was settled they applied the funds to the Crenshaw site, sold the Adams land and used that money to remodel the space where they still are today.

The building on Crenshaw has had many former lives: it was an ambulance dispatch center, an airline hanger and a restaurant. It needed lots of work, but Lula had a vision for it that was unstoppable. Erwin had to find the money to make the dream a reality. Real estate developer and construction business owner Fred Lawson, who is a longtime friend and mentor to the Washingtons, stepped in with $200,000 of financial support to create the dance space Lula envisioned. It was the first time he’d invested in the arts.

“After getting to know them for a couple of years, I knew where their heart was,” explained Lawson. “They give more than they ever receive, so when you find someone like that then you automatically want to be a blessing to them. They didn’t have the money but I wanted to see this place completed.”

It wasn’t only Lawson’s support and those in the community that secured the space for the company. They received a $1.3M FEMA grant to purchase the building, along with funds from the City of Los Angeles and various foundations for renovations. US Bank also helped with financing the building.

Currently, the building is a vibrant, beautiful space adorned with African art and posters of black dance legends in the hallways that lead to five large mirrored studios, a dressing room, two costume storage areas and a spacious theatre. It is a home to local young people who want to experience dance and for some who are looking for a supportive space outside of homes where parents may be struggling to make ends meet.

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Tamica shared how the Lula Washington Dance Theatre has impacted generations of young people of color in Los Angeles. It is not just about teaching dance but fulfilling a deep community need.  “It’s life or slow death for some people. We don’t have the capacity to feed the masses, but we have been able to feed those who found their way through the doors,” she said. “When my mom took over the space on Adams, it was the height of the crack epidemic, and I know for fact that they have literally saved lives. Not just the child but the entire family is impacted. When you have grandparents caring for a child because the parent is on drugs and they are barely holding on, but they come to the studio and see a whole new light and connect with someone, it becomes an extended family for people and a safe space.”

Lula and her family see the necessity of arts access to young people as public schools are cutting these programs, if they exist at all. “Some students don’t learn well just sitting in a seat, or just by reading a book. Some people are visual they get ideas and concepts through watching,” Lula emphasized. “The power of the arts is that you can present ideas and concepts differently and shine a light on something that maybe a child was struggling with. Maybe all of a sudden they are doing better in math because they took a tap class. Or maybe getting along better with people because they can express their feelings through a jazz class or African class or ballet.”

Brightly Lula
Lula Washington | Lula Washington Dance Theatre

Not only do the Washingtons offer dance classes and structure for local young people but they also educate them about black history and current events through dance. Lula mentioned that when the girls in Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram, she created a spoken word and piece with her students called, “Where Are The Girls?”. “We talked about it, and they were able to share their voices. These girls were their ages, and it wasn’t talked about in school. They told me they had no idea, and I told them ‘You can make a difference, what do you have to say about it?”’ Lula exclaimed. She approached her work inspired by Nelson Mandela in the same way. “You won’t know if your teachers aren’t telling you about it. They all said that the first time we knew about it was when we started dancing about it. They were all in awe. I said, ‘Guess what? You are all young people. Guess who was on the forefront of making change? Young people.’ That’s why it’s important for me to tie things back to history.”

In addition to educating their students, Lula Washington Dance Theatre honors local dance legends who often do not get attention outside of the Los Angeles dance community. Erwin explains, “Our place has become a place as we salute pioneers as they pass through and pass on. Many of the people that Lula danced with when she was young have died. Many of their legacies have died because there were fewer people to keep their legacy alive.”

As the city is rapidly constructing homogenous luxury housing developments and many black middle-class families are leaving for the suburbs, preservation of black cultural institutions becomes more challenging. Tamica expressed concern about how many local black performing arts organizations such as the Inner City Cultural Center (an early dance home for the Washingtons), The Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles and the Ebony Showcase Theatre had to close after 20 and 30 years. “I don’t want us to be one of them. L.A. has a rich history of performing arts and so many are not here because they didn’t own their own space and didn’t have the support to keep the overall ongoing operating costs to keep the lights on.”

Finding wealthy donors especially when foundations are cutting arts budgets is difficult. It is also a challenge when black families have less disposable income or generational wealth. Tamica noted that while many black people will give to their churches or larger arts organizations, finding support within the local community has been tough. For example, Lula co-founded International Association of Blacks in Dance to celebrate black history and the history of black dance all over the U.S. and the world. It is a consortium of black dance organizations and by joining together and boasting a bigger budget, foundations are more willing to fund them. After surviving decades of resistance to their work, they have learned to be resourceful and are clear about the importance of securing ongoing funding. Having longtime supporters is also critical.

Rehearsal at the Lula Washington studio
Lula Washington Dance Theatre in the studio | Amanda Pinedo

“I’ve been here since the beginning,” professed Lawson. “You see all of the young people that come through here, they come back, and you see the effect on their lives and what they have achieved. So many kids come in here and get off the street and involved in something good and productive. As long as they’re [the Washingtons] around and doing what they’re doing I’ll continue to support. They go out and do something for others, there’s no better return on money than that.”

Dance is part of a significant arts legacy for African-Americans in Los Angeles and the world, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre is deeply committed to carrying the torch for future generations. Tamica remembered their family friend, Alvin Ailey visiting a rehearsal when they were on Adams and telling her parents there should be a dance school in every city all over the world. “He told them that if someone comes and has no money, let them stand on the side and clap their hands! Find a way, create the space for people to dance because it’s healing and creates community and work. I think it’s important for us as a city that has this kind of history and legacy to own it and cherish it.”

Top Image: Dancers after rehearsal at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre | Amanda Pinedo

 

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