By Tamica Washington-Miller
Just in time for Black History Month, Erwin and Lula Washington are celebrating 43 years as founders and leaders of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.
Located at Crenshaw Boulevard and Coliseum Street, the program marked its anniversary Feb. 18 with a tribute from the Graystone Association of Los Angeles (GALA), founded by Bobby Green of the 1970s soul group Enchantment.
“Without doubt, through the more than 40 years of creative work in Los Angeles’ Black communities the Lula Washington Contemporary Dance Foundation has changed the lives of countless young children,” said Larry Wiggs, GALA board member. “The dance foundation makes possible low-cost and, often free, dance classes stressing health and well-being over drugs, gangs and negative community involvements. During the 80s their ‘I Do Dance, Not Drugs’ was such a powerful slogan and program.”
GALA chose to award Erwin and Lula Washington with this distinguished recognition during Black History Month as a reflection of their year-round commitment to honoring and showcasing the Black experience in all their artistic work.
“I believe every month is Black History Month,” said Lula Washington, founding artistic director of the dance company. “Our creative work celebrates Black history and Black achievements all year. And it’s important that audiences, and particularly children, know their history and their cultural roots. So that is our focus in the choreography that we do, and in the way we teach our children in dance classes.”
As the Lula Washington Dance Theatre’s executive director, Erwin Washington has helped maintain the organization’s business focus on honoring the history and artistic achievements of African Americans.
“By creating this organization and by doing the work that we do we make a new Black history every single day,” said Erwin Washington. “Just by continuing our work and serving as an example to others we are creating a history that has and will continue to inspire others to also build organizations and institutions.”
With humble beginnings, Erwin and Lula Washington founded their dance organization in 1979 with no funding and no experience running a nonprofit organization.
“We had a drive and a will to succeed, and we were not going to let anything stop us,” Lula Washington said. “And today, I can proudly say the Lula Washington Dance Theatre is the longest-lasting, Black-owned dance organization in Los Angeles.”
From the start, the organization was comprised of three artistic expressions: a professional Black dance company that toured across the United States and throughout numerous foreign countries; a dance school that would train young people to build the work ethic and discipline needed to succeed in dance and life; and a creative dance space that would serve for the development of new artistic work, training, and community gatherings.
Since its inception the Lula Washington Dance Theatre has focused on building a local, national, and international name for itself. Their work has not gone unnoticed. Of historical note, in 1984 Lula and Erwin were appointed to host the “1984 Olympic Black Dance Festival,” which not only brought major Black dance companies from all over the United States to L.A., but it also afforded Lula’s dance company an invitation to dance in the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics.
Lula has continued to receive accolades for choreography and for showcasing the work of others. Of significance, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre has hosted four “International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festivals,” which bring thousands to Los Angeles from all over the world. the Lula Washington Dance Theatre recently performed with Muse/Ique with original choreography celebrating Etta James and Nat King Cole, and serves as a repository for the pioneering choreographic works of Katherine Dunham.
However, what distinguishes the artistic work and contributions of Lula Washington and the Lula Washington Dance Theatre is the commitment to being a stakeholder along the Crenshaw Corridor by owning their property. When Erwin and Lula relocated their studio to the Crenshaw community they were intentional in their effort to owning their own space, and to being a fixture of Black artistic expression.
“When an African-American organization owns its own space it establishes the potential for permanence in the community and the ability to create a space where artists and the community can grow,” said Erwin Washington. “The Lula Washington Dance Theatre is much more than what people think of as a dance organization. We are part of this community. So we allow our space to also be utilized for other local artists, birthday parties, town hall meetings, voting, COVID testing, memorial services and so much more.”
So, as we continue to celebrate the historic contributions of Black Americans this month, it is with great honor that I have this opportunity to not only acknowledge the extraordinary dance legacy and artistic work of the Lula Washington Dance Theater, but to also honor the trailblazing achievements of my parents, Erwin and Lula Washington.
Tamica Washington-Miller is associate director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.