It was 1979 and nearing time for Lula Washington to graduate from the UCLA Dance Department and figure out what she would do with her life after college.
Her dance professor, Carol Scothorn, advised her to go to New York to seek a career as a performer, maybe with a major dance company like Alvin Ailey’s. She suggested this because Lula was clearly an excellent performer with great talent.
But Lula did not want to be just a dancer. She wanted her own company. And she saw New York as being already full of great dance companies. She saw Los Angeles as a city of opportunity – a place where she could build something from scratch for herself.
Still, she was unsure if she was ready for that just yet. In addition to being a full-time UCLA student with a husband (me) and a daughter (Tamica), Lula was actively taking professional dance classes outside the University and auditioning for dance jobs in Hollywood.
She’d already danced in the Academy Awards, and in the films “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with the Bee Gees; “Funny Lady” with Barbra Streisand; and with Donald McKayle in his black Cinderella TV show, “Cindy.” Lula wanted to do as much dancing as she could while she could.
So, in addition to Hollywood, Lula actively danced with small dance companies in LA including Margalit Oved’s; William Couser’s; R’Wanda Lewis’; Burch Mann’s; and Gloria Newman’s. Somehow, she juggled all of this at once.
One night, Lula was driving home from a late night rehearsal with the Gloria Newman Dance Company in Long Beach. Tamica, our daughter, was asleep in the car.
Lula was so tired that she essentially zoned out behind the wheel. When she came to herself, she had passed our apartment by miles and she’d also passed UCLA and had driven halfway across the San Fernando Valley. She realized that she was driving in her sleep and could have killed herself and Tamica.
She decided it was time to streamline her life. She thought starting her own company would simplify things. Little did she know…
STARTING THE DANCE COMPANY
In 1979 when we launched what is now the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, we did not know what we were getting into.
“At UCLA they did not prepare me to run a dance company. They did not teach us anything about marketing, fundraising, grant writing, board development, or, doing any of the administrative work needed for dance,” Lula recalled recently at dinner after we saw the latest Star Wars movie, “Solo.”
“I knew how to choreograph dances and to put on a show,” recalled Lula. “They told me that I needed to form a non-profit and people would come and give me money for the dance company. That’s all I knew.”
Lula got the chance to try out her company idea when a podiatrist, Dr. Ernest Washington (no relation), invited Lula to put on a dance concert for a dance medicine symposium that he was holding in New York City.
Lula put together a group of dancers for the show. She recalled that it was easy to find dancers for a free trip to New York. The concert was a big success and Lula wanted to keep it together as a company.
We called the new company Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre. Lula did not want her name in the title. She wanted the company to represent Los Angeles.
When we started, we had nothing – no money, no board members, no non-profit status – nothing but the dream that Lula had carried with her through her years at UCLA.
Throughout our early years and to this day, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater served as a role model for us and as a source of inspiration. New companies need role models.
More on Lula and Erwin Washington
Alvin Ailey, who had inspired Lula to dance, was by this time a personal friend and mentor. Mr. Ailey told Lula that forming a dance company in Los Angeles would be the hardest thing in the world to do.
But we were bright-eyed, naive, inexperienced and full of confidence that we could do anything. Lula had always said that “if you can dream it, and if you can see it, you can achieve it.”
But when Lula finished school and took the dance company into the real world, it was a financial shock.
“Finding rehearsal space was the biggest problem,” Lula told me while we ate recently at P.F. Chang’s and recollected our past together in dance. “Finding rehearsal space is still a big problem for dance companies today. Having a home, a place to work, that is still a challenge,” she said.
My friend Ian Foxx had a theater group back then called Foxx Follies. It was based in a two-story brick building on Slauson Avenue near Denker Avenue. I arranged for Lula to rehearse there, but Ian Foxx had to be paid.
We borrowed $65 from Dr. Ernest Washington, the foot specialist who’d taken Lula to New York for the dance medicine symposium. That money covered the first set of rehearsals for the new company.
When it came time to repay the loan, the dance company did not have the money. And when we had to pay again for more rehearsal time, the dance company lacked those funds too.
So, Lula and I paid it, using my income from working as a newspaper reporter at Los Angeles Daily News. For our first three years, Lula and I paid everything from my salary.
I had no choice in this because I had years earlier urged Lula to follow her passion for dance, and to leave the money issues to me. I said that if she danced, I would pay the bills. So, I had to pay the bills.
Back then we were fortunate that the dancers wanted to be there with us, despite our inability to pay anything close to a salary. But even that came to an end.
Eventually, we established a gas stipend for the dancers. It started at $25 a week and was meant to put gas in their cars so they could get to rehearsals. Over the years that sum went up and up and up. Today, we put paying dancers as our top priority for our continued survival as a dance company.
Our peer dance companies in other states pay their dancers guaranteed weekly salaries with benefits. They can do this because they have built the fundraising infrastructure to do this. We are still working on that infrastructure, 38 years later. It is not easy, especially in Los Angeles.
Some companies are lucky to have wealthy donors. Others raise dancer salaries by touring or self-producing large home seasons that have sponsors and grants.
However a dance company survives, it requires more than good dancing and good choreography and a good show. It takes a mountain of behind-the-scenes work.
In 1980, I decided to incorporate the dance company as a non-profit so we could get grants to help pay for our work.
Lula and I sat in our living room to write the articles of incorporation, we agreed that we wanted an international touring modern dance company that paid dancers professional wages and that did innovative dance rooted in African-American culture.
As I typed, I asked Lula to fully explain her dream for the company.
It turns out that Lula wanted more than a dance company. She wanted a place in the inner city of Los Angeles where dance artists could develop their craft and where kids could learn to dance. Her desire for a local “home” for dance was paramount, as was her desire to do service for the inner city, where we both grew up.
When we put these thoughts together, we realized we were describing an institution, not just a dance company.
After filing the paperwork, it became my job to do the behind the scenes work to build a board of directors, to write bylaws, and to handle the grant writing and fundraising that financed all of our work.
I did this pro bono for 10 years while continuing to work in the news business. Eventually, however, the dance company became all-consuming. It took all of our time, day and night, seven days a week.
Over the next 38 years, we focused steadfastly on everything that was in our articles of incorporation. In 1983, Lula taught free dance classes at the old R’Wanda Lewis Afro-American Dance Company studio in exchange for free rehearsal space for her company.
That same year, I cashed my tax refund check and took over the lease of that building when R’Wanda retired. A few years later, I refinanced our house and took out $65,000, which I used to help our board purchase that building for $230,000.
The Northridge Earthquake destroyed our building in 1994, and we eventually, in 2001, purchased our current building on Crenshaw Boulevard – after too much drama to go over here.
Now, we have five dance studios. We have a year-round dance school for kids in South Los Angeles. And, we have a dance company that performs locally around the US, and sometimes in foreign countries. We always pay for rehearsals and shows and tours. We teach classes in local schools and do concerts in schools for kids.
Our dance studio has become much like a community dance center. Many other dance companies and independent choreographers hold events at our dance studio now. Our students have come up through our school and have gone on to dance all over the world with many other companies and commercial outlets. Those who are the most driven rise up and join our dance company.
Lula has what she always dreamed of – a dance company, a youth dance company, a school, a studio and a deep inner city community base in Los Angeles.
After 38 years, we are looking towards the future and we are preparing Tamica to take over the organization someday and to develop her own ideas for the future that she wants to see. We know that she will achieve whatever she dreams.