photo Gene Hazzard
photo Gene Hazzerd
photo Gene Hazzard
Ruth Beckford (1925 - ) was born in Oakland, California on December 7, 1925. She was one of four children including one sister and twin brothers. Her parents, natives of Jamiaca and Atlanta, Georgia, and her extended family supported her training in dance including tap, acrobatics and ballet as well as music lessons. Miss Beckford performed professionally as a child in vaudeville acts, with her brother and solo, onstage in competition at movie-houses and also at social settings such as Sunday teas and other community events. Miss Beckford continued to train and perform, eventually auditioning for Katherine Dunham's touring company in San Francisco at age seventeen. Offered a contract, Miss Beckford chose to attend UC-Berkeley and perform with Miss Dunham whenever they toured locally.
Miss Beckford studied modern dance technique and ocmposition with Caryl Cuddeback at UC-Berkeley while also training at Welland Lathrop and Anna Halprin's dance studio in San Francisco. She was the first African-American performer in a Bay Area modern dance company and also to become a member of the Orchesis Modern Dance Society at UC-Berkeley.
Upon graduation, Miss Beckford created the United States' first recreational dance department at Oakland's Parks and Recreation Department. She remained project director for twenty and one and a half years, developing a coherent philosophy of teaching the whole child and established a graduated set of programs for girls ages seven through young adult. Several of her students have become significant dance artist/educators including heads of dance departments and professional companies both locally and nation-wide.
Miss Beckford simultaneously taught African-Haitian dance based on the Dunham technique at her private studios and was artistic director of the Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company. The company toured throughout the college and university circuit before disbanding in 1962.
Her writing career includes the authorized biography of Katherine Dunham, supported by several research trips to Haiti and published by Dekker (NY) in 1979. She has also written her own autobiography, two cookbooks, three original plays and an article for the California Dance Educator's journal.
Her trilogy of plays titled Tis the Morning of My Life was produced by Ron Thompson of the Oakland Ensemble Theater Company, where she has served on the Board of Directors. The play have been performed in the East Bay and in New York and was also filmed for a television pilot series. Miss Beckford has also sung and acted on stage, in feature films, television and commercials including two PBS television movies directed by Maya Angelou.
Her many honors and community acknowledgements include acting as a dance panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts (1972-74), and induction into the Black Filmmakers, Oakland Parks and Recreation and the Bay Area's Isadora Duncan Dance Community Hall of Fame.
Miss Beckford closed her private dance studios in 1975 and had several back surgeries. Based on her life-time of helping others, including co-creating a free breakfast program with the Black Panther Party, Miss Beckford developed a new career in social work-related programs. Recent work has included counseling at the City of Oakland Job Training Partnership Act office and also at the Oakland Earthquake Support Services Center after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. She also developed, with collaborator Ron Thompson, a motivational speaking business for both homeless and corporate clients. Miss Beckford was crowned Ghana Queen Mother of Dance at Harambere Dance ensemble performance in 1990.
Drummond: Ruth Beckford still fabulous after 80
Beckford later returned to the Bay Area to open the Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company. She also started a modern dance department at the Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation, where she taught dance to countless young people over the years.
Beckford, 87, who could once make her body perform feats others could only dream of, uses a walker. Yet she refuses to let age-related ailments interfere with her zest for life.
On Saturday, Beckford and fellow octogenarians, former television journalist Belva Davis, genealogist Electra Price, educator Careth B. Reid, and youngster Dezie Woods-Jones, 72, will share their advice for living life to the fullest in one’s golden years.
I recently interviewed Beckford at her downtown Oakland home, where she has lived for 50 years, to talk to her about what it’s like to be 87.
Q: You’ve lived through a lot of historic events. What stands out the most?
A: My sweet 16 on Pearl Harbor Day. We all went to the movie. We’re sitting in the movie eating milk duds … and on the screen the movie stopped, and it said all military personnel report to your bases the United States is at war with Japan, we are getting bombed. … Folks talk about 9/11. Our best friends were Japanese kids. Then, when they got evacuated to their camps, we all cried; our friends were gone. It was terrible. And no one ever came back.
Q: What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you turn 80?
Q: What kinds of health challenges have you had?
I am the original bionic woman. Five back surgeries. Two hip replacements and one adjustment. Rotary cuff. Four trigger fingers. And I’m getting ready to have a new knee as soon as I get back from Atlanta. My innards are good. It’s all these joints.
Q: So how do you deal with declining physical health and not getting depressed?
A: I’ve had five back surgeries, but I can get up on that walker, and I like to go out. So there’s always somebody worse off. Happiness is an inside job.
Q: Have you ever smoked?
A: Never. Never made sense to me to even sneak it. When I went to Cal, everyone had cigarette holders and cases and things. I always thought that’s a waste of my money.
Q: Tell me about your diet.
A: I had an attack of gout, which makes you stand up and say thank you Lord it’s over. So I can’t eat meat or fish or shellfish. It’s a choice. I can say let’s go out and have a martini and then have an attack of gout; it ain’t worth it. I can cook chicken and turkey any way you want. I eat vegetables.
Q: Do you exercise?
A: I do my recline cycle three times a week, which I hate with a passion. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 o’clock.
Q: How many of your friends are still living?
A: So many of my friends are gone or have Alzheimer’s, and it’s just very, very sad. That’s why I say keep in touch with your old friends because they get fewer and fewer and fewer.
Q: What is your secret to longevity?
A: I don’t let things stress me out. Anything I cannot touch and help I’m not going to let it get on me. Stress will give you the heart attacks, the strokes and all that business.
Q: Do you use the Internet?
A: I don’t have a computer. I’m not interested in the Facebook and the backbook and the hipbook and the earbook. I don’t want to know that you walked across the street today.
Q: What advice do you have for younger people?
A: Quit smoking now. Don’t wait. Don’t worry about what folks think of you. If you want to do something, and you’re true to yourself, go do it.
The workshop is Saturday at Geoffrey’s, 410 14th St., Oakland. Registration is from 8 to 9 a.m. Admission is $25, exact change, cash only. There is a handicap elevator around the corner on Franklin Street and public parking at Webster and 14th Street.