Our bodies tell many stories. Stories of heritage, of pride and of culture. Of enthusiasm and exuberance, anguish and remorse. Our bodies shelter our love and hold our loss. We are etched with scars from violence, abuse, addiction. We are pyramids of redemption and choice.
We all have our stories to tell. Lula Washington tells hers through dance. Founder, creative director, and main choreographer of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Washington spoke to me prior to the company’s appearance in Billings.
“The works I create… are a part of who I am and where I come from.” When she was first exposed to modern dance, she knew. This would be her life’s work. Read the full interview here >>>
Dance performances by Lula Washington Dance Theatre were at times jolting, at others so vivacious it seemed strange that we were not leaping to our feet (ahhh, the reservations of polite audiences in theater seats). I left feeling like I’d been witness to the most private moments in someone’s life.
Lula Washington didn’t grow up going to ballet on Saturday mornings. So when she first saw live dance, she was mesmerized.
“It was never part of my upbringing,” Washington said. She was the oldest of eight children growing up in poverty south Los Angeles. “The only dancing we did was in the living room around the radio or television.”
Washington was 22—a junior studying nursing at Harbor Community College—when a professor took her class to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. While watching the performers, Washington realized she wanted to dance professionally. Her application to UCLA’s school of dance, however, was rejected, because she was “too old” to begin a dance career.
Reflecting back, Washington said, “I did not need to allow my goal and my quest and my desire to dance hinge upon someone else’s opinion. I just felt very strongly that (dance) was what I really wanted to do, and decided I was still going got pursue it.”
Washington appealed the decision and was granted admission. She established the Black Dance Association at UCLA and founded the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, later renamed to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, in 1980 with her husband, Erwin. Their goal: to provide a creative outlet for minority dance artists in the inner city.
“Part of the reason I did not discover dance growing up is that I don’t recall it being readily available to me in my community. Neither were the arts prominent,” Washington said.
The contemporary modern dance company performs globally Washington’s own experimental works, as well as the works of legendary pioneers in African-American dance. Washington is the founder, creative director, and main choreographer.
“The works I create happen because of what I have experienced personally in the life that I have lived so far,” Washington said. “They are a part of who I am and where I come from.” The company’s choreography includes ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, fusion movement styles, and traditional African dance.
In addition to Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Washington established an inner city-based school in South Los Angeles.
“It is very important that young people explore the art of moment, whether they want to be a dancer or not, because dance is a very healing art to explore at all ages,” Washington said. “It was extremely important to be able to provide this in my community.”
The organization holds an after school dance program that provides low cost and free dance classes to neighborhood children. The program, called “I Do Dance, Not Drugs!” has taught dance to more than 45,000 inner-city students.
“I believe that all the arts play a key role in motivating young people,” Washington said. “When youth have the opportunity to take part in the arts, they will naturally gravitate to what it is that will touch and motive them.”
Lula Washington Dance Theatre Company company’s performances—thought-provoking and high energy—are designed to motivate and inspire. Dancers perform works from the company’s repertoire at the Alberta Bair Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 4.
“We enjoy the opportunity to share our dance stories and be a source of inspiration, as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was for me when I got a chance to see them,” Washington said.
Prior to the performance, Washington will give a talk on Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Billings Public Library. Tickets at AlbertaBairTheater.org.
Above photo courtesy Alberta Bair Theater: Lula Washington, at left, and members of Lula Washington Dance Theatre pose with students at Billings West High School on Nov. 2, 2015.