MERCED -- A troupe of nimble dancers slicing majestically through the air with seemingly effortless precision took center stage Friday at Golden Valley High School.
The acclaimed Lula Washington Dance Theatre entertained an auditorium packed with students in the school's theater building with its high-energy performance.
Wearing a regal sunburst-style fabric around her forehead and dressed in a bright purple dashiki, Lula Washington stood at the side of the main stage, explaining the meaning behind each performance.
"Every one of you can be a modern-day choreographer," Washington said from the microphone, as the performers leaped, flipped and slid across the stage.
The visit to Golden Valley High by the world-renowned dance company was a preview of the performance tonight at 7:30 at the Merced Theatre. About 245 theater students in the Merced Union High School District saw Friday afternoon's performance, which was followed by an appearance at UC Merced.
The 32-year-old contemporary-modern dance company, which is being hosted by Arts UC Merced Presents, is visiting Merced as part of an initiative by the James Irvine Foundation to bring arts to Central Valley communities, said Erwin Washington, the dance group's co-founder and husband of its namesake.
The south Los Angeles-based dance company got funding for 10 Central Valley performances over the next two years.
Audiences will see the athletic prowess of the company's dancers, but they'll also receive a history lesson on the black experience in the United States through song and dance.
For example, one of Friday's performances was dedicated to the Little Rock Nine, the black students who desegregated Central High School in the Arkansas city in 1957. Another performance was set to the music of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is widely regarded as the black national anthem.
There's no pigeonholing the dance company to one particular genre. The dancers who make up the company must have training in a variety of styles, including ballet, modern and African dance.
"I think there's sort of a misconception that the only thing that African-American dance is connected with is hip-hop and street dance," Lula Washington said.
"And there's nothing wrong with that. We incorporate that and embrace that also. But all throughout our history in the United States we've done other styles of dance."
"There have been African-American dancers who've wanted to do ballet from Day One," she said. "And even though they were denied those opportunities they still fought, worked real hard, made a difference and changed it."
Washington, 62, said that as a junior college student in Los Angeles she was inspired to become a dancer after a teacher took her to a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at UCLA.
"That changed my whole life," said Washington. "I was motivated by Alvin Ailey because there were images of people of all colors, of all shades, on the stage. So I actually saw a really, really dark person that looked like me. That made me say, 'Oh, yeah. I can do that.' "
Many of the high school students who saw Friday's performance said they were impressed.
"It was awesome. It was so energetic; it was lively and colorful. And it was fun to watch," said Elizabeth Mobley, 14.
"It was amazing. Truly amazing," added Sara Melton, 14.
Gail Benedict, producing manager of Arts UC Merced Presents, said she hopes that bringing the company to Merced will inspire young people to pursue dance, just as seeing Alvin Ailey inspired Washington years ago.
Washington also hopes her dance company will inspire, as well as educate and build bridges of understanding between cultures.
"I think the arts are a great way to introduce different cultures to students, to have dialogue around issues that relate to each community, each culture," she said. "And to just provide information that you don't ordinarily see."
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: The Lula Washington Dance Theatre
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today at the Merced Theatre, 301 W. Main St. Merced. Doors open at 6:30.
PRICE: $15 general admission and $10 for students and children under 12. For details, call (209) 381-0500 or go to www.mercedtheatre.org.
NEXT IN THE VALLEY: The Lula Washington Dance Theatre group is scheduled to appear Feb. 6 at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto.