How She Made It: Lula Washington on Nurturing The Art of African American Dance
MEET Lula Washington: Since its inception in 1980, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre has performed across the United States and abroad in countries like Russia, China, Mexico, Spain, Canada, Kosovo and Germany. The theatre’s co-founder, Lula Washington, has worked on major motion picture sets like the blockbuster Avatar and Disney’s The Little Mermaid and was also one of the few women selected to receive the prestigious Minerva Award from California’s former first lady, Maria Shriver. As noted on its official website, at the core of the theatre’s mission is the passion to “build a world class contemporary modern dance company that travels worldwide with contemporary modern dance works that reflect African-American history and culture.”
MN: Is it true that you “stumbled” upon dance while attending Harbor Community College where an instructor later introduced you to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre? Had you never danced before professionally and what was the process of becoming a professional dancer like for you?
LW: I stumbled upon dance at a park in Los Angeles. My husband was playing basketball at the park. Down the hall from where he played, someone was counting, “five, six, seven, eight.” I wasn’t really a sports person so I went down the hall to see what the counting was about. At the end of the hall, I saw people dancing in the studio. Thelma Robinson, a close friend of Alvin Ailey’s, was teaching dance in the park. Back then there was a lot of opportunity for professional dancers to teach dance at parks and recreational facilities. Thelma invited me in and I later went on to dance with her and other local dance companies. My first formal official dance teacher, Janice Guidde, taught at Harbor Community College, the school where I started taking my first official dance class.
MN: Why did you found the Lula Washington Dance Theatre?
LW: I founded the dance company because there was a void – a lack of opportunities for African American dancers and choreographers in Los Angeles. There were a few mainstream dance companies in the area at the time, but, I wanted to choreograph and express my own creative voice about my culture. Those other dance companies could not offer me that opportunity. I started the dance company with a partner, naming it the L.A. Contemporary Dance Theatre. However, it didn’t work out well. Over the years as the company grew at many different levels we changed the name to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.
MN: Businesses cannot succeed without capital. What resources did you use to finance your business and how much did you initially invest in the Lula Washington Dance Theatre?
LW: We never had working capital with which to start our dance company. Our only source of income was the two jobs that my husband, Erwin, and I had. We were able to barter for rehearsal space for different locations. Costumes came out of our personal wardrobe. No one was paid.
Most dance companies don’t start up with working capital. Even after we were established for more than 20 years and had a history of paying our bills, we still couldn’t get a bank loan. Most arts programs don’t receive funding unless they are a classical ballet company. As owners of other dance companies, we go into business out of our own pocket.
Once we decided that we were going to officially be a dance company we applied for non-profit status. In the arts, they teach you that in order to be funded you have to be a nonprofit. That’s what was taught at the time. The idea of being a nonprofit is that people will donate to your company for the work that you are doing. However, the process of seeking and gaining funding is very competitive. In fact, we didn’t receive funding for about three years. Around the 10th year we started receiving some larger support from private foundations, businesses and the city of Los Angeles and the state of California.