"I'm a late-blooming dancer," she says. "I was 22 years old when I started, completely over the hill in the dance world. But once I discovered dance, I was determined to make a life there."
Washington, who grew up in a Watts housing project, boogied her way to a master's degree in dance from UCLA and then onto various Hollywood stages, eventually landing a gig in one of Cher's Vegas shows. Performing in kick lines wasn't enough, though, and 20 years ago she founded the Lula Washington Dance Theater in Los Angeles. The studio houses Washington's acclaimed dance company, as well as classes in ballet, tap and hip-hop. The center's renowned "master" classes borrow any famous choreographer who happens to be in town to teach inner-city kids the joys of dance.
"We're trying to instill a sense of pride in kids," says Washington, who founded "I Do Dance, Not Drugs," a program designed to keep teens off the street. "We're giving them a way of looking at dance differently, a chance to see all the possibilities that come with pursuing it."
Washington carries that message with her wherever she goes, and presents free dance workshops in each city in which her company performs. "Growing up, I didn't know that there were places to go to learn to dance, and so I didn't know about the great release that dance can be. So we go to community centers and old folks' homes and especially to kids' groups, and we show them how great an impact dancing can have on their lives, if they want it."
The company's work has its roots in African and Caribbean dance, with a ration of jazz, jitterbug and funk tossed in. Performances tend to feature flailing limbs and sweaty gyrating torsos, wide-flung arms and shaking buttocks. The troupe's Phoenix performance will include recent compositions, like "Mahal Dances," performed to the jazzy blues of Taj Mahal and incorporating rhythmic clapping games and old poems. A piece called "93" casts its dancers as computers, and "Tasting Muddy Waters," danced to music by the great bluesman, depicts a day in the life of a woman determined to keep alive the cultural traditions of Africa.
Washington's life isn't all road shows and largess. Hollywood occasionally comes calling; she created the choreography for Disney's The Little Mermaid. ("A bunch of guys came over and videotaped us dancing, then transferred the dances to computer graphics and turned us into cartoon fishes. It was wild.") But the value of dance to the greater community remains Washington's main interest. "Through movement, people come to feel good about themselves," Washington says.
"Dance brings people together. It's not just putting on music and running around. Dance can change the world."
Lula Washington Dance Theater: Arizona Tour '99 performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, September 30, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams. Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors and students. For details call 602-262-7272 (Phoenix Civic Plaza), 480-5035555 (Dillard's).