Newhall School District | Dance Instructor Lula Washington at Newhall Elementary School
By Megan Mann
Fifth grade students are getting in motion at Newhall Elementary School, learning to dance from a world-renowned choreographer.
“It’s stepping out of the box for some of them,” said Carla Hicks, Newhall Elementary School Assistant Principal.
Over the past three months, Hicks said she has seen the schools 96 fifth graders progress through movements, take multi-step directions, and improve their physicality in balance and coordination.
“It’s really been dramatic,” said Hicks.
The students are learning several styles of dance including modern ballet, jazz and tap, from Lula Washington, Founder and Artistic Director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre in Los Angeles.
“Many of the students we work with have never experienced dance, or movement, or ever been to a dance concert before,” said Washington.
This unique enrichment program is funded through a California Arts Council grant, one that has been awarded to the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center’s K-12 Arts Education Outreach Program for three years in a row.
“We just wrote a grant for the fourth year to have (Lula) come back one more time,” said Adam Philipson, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center Managing Director.
Each year the Performing Arts Center teams up with a different school district in Santa Clarita to rotate the program among elementary schools in the SCV.
“Last year it was Castaic (School District) and Saugus before that,” said Philipson. “Next year we will return to Saugus again.”
This year’s grant funds the dance enrichment program in both the Newhall School and the Sulphur Springs School District.
For 12 weeks, Lula and her assistant make the drive from Los Angles to Santa Clarita on Tuesdays and Thursdays to spend an hour with fifth graders at both Newhall Elementary and Mint Canyon Elementary Schools.
“Part of our goal has always been to expose young people to dance,” said Washington.
“When Adam asked us if we’d be interested in this project I was very pleased because I know that throughout the state there has not been a program that would provide dance enrichment for students. I looked at it as an opportunity to expose young people to the art of dance and the various styles of dance and the people who have made it important.”
The students are now entering their final week of instruction with Lula.
“The relationship they have built with Lula is great,” said Hicks.
Nearly 90 students shuffled into Newhall Elementary Schools multi-purpose room Thursday morning, greeting Lula and her assistant with ear-to-ear smiles and hugs.
During a 15-minute warm-up routine, the students demonstrated their knowledge of dance terminology and coordination by performing pliés in the five positions of ballet.
Afterward, the group followed the beat of large drum as Lula lead them through a routine of tap dance drills filled with shuffles, stomps and ball taps.
Chuckles of laughter echoed through the halls as Lula demonstrated a new heel-stomp combo at the front of the room.
The twice-a-week, 60-minute routine is added to the students’ regular scheduled physical education classes.
When asked if they enjoy learning dance with Washington, the answer was obvious and shouted in unison.
“Yes,” they said, smiling broadly.
Hicks said they’ll be sad to see her go.
“To have adults that come on a regular basis and who are consistent in their caring for them and their expectations of them is very valuable to our students,” said Hicks.
Lula Washington is Founder and Artistic Director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT). Lula founded the Company in 1980 with her husband Erwin Washington to provide a creative outlet for minority dance artists in the inner city. Today, Lula and her Company are revered across the United States and around the world. The Company has danced in over 150 cities in the United States, as well as abroad in Germany, Spain, Kosovo, Mexico, Canada, China, and Russia.
Lula stumbled upon modern dance at Harbor Community College, where a dance instructor introduced her to the work of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Mesmerized by the beauty of Ailey’s dancers, Lula decided to pursue dance as a career. Soon afterward, Lula applied to University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) dance program and was rejected. The University said she was too old at age 22 to begin a dance career. By this time, Lula was already married to her husband and raising a small child, Tamica.
Unwilling to take no for an answer, Lula sent in an impassioned appeal for admission. A retiring dean was moved by the passion in the letter and called Lula in to meet her in person. Lula promised she would work hard and not let him down if he let her into the school. The dean granted her appeal as his last act before packing his bags to retire, saying that anyone with her determination, drive and eloquence deserved a chance. Lula was admitted into UCLA.
While pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Dance at UCLA, Lula performed in the Academy Awards telecast, the film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band, and with singers Cher and Al Green. She also danced in “Funny Lady” with Barbra Striesand, the television show Komedy Tonight, the film King Kong, and many other shows. She also established the Black Dance Association at UCLA, bringing artists of color to the UCLA campus, and found time to dance with local dance companies and choreographers including Margalite Oved, R’Wanda Lewis, Thelma Robinson, and William Couser.
For more information about the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, visit www.lulawashington.org.