Oakland native Ruth Beckford is a Bay Area dance legend who used to thrill audiences with her acrobatic moves.

Beckford, was a disciple of the late Katherine Dunham, the matriarch of the modern black dance movement. Beckford taught at Dunham’s school in New York and studied voodoo dance rituals under Dunham in Haiti.
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?

A: You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. It’s about you. Don’t be an on-call baby sitter. You can still have a good time. Just because you are 80 doesn’t mean sit down and die. Make your bucket list different. The main thing is to be independent. I get on Paratransit and go to Lorraine Hansberry (Theatre) to see a play. I saw that show with the Chinese dancers, that was great. I take myself out to lunch, went and did my nails yesterday.

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.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Reach her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin.