Celebrating ‘Dance Lady’ Ruth Beckford, teacher, actor, Katherine Dunham biographer, Oakland’s 2018 Mother of the Year, a founder of Black Panther Breakfast Program

Ruth Beckford – Photo: Gene Hazzard

by Brenda Payton

Ruth Beckford, the legendary dancer, choreographer and Oakland community activist, died May 8 of natural causes. She was 93.

Beckford, known as The Dance Lady, toured with the acclaimed dancer-choreographer Katharine Dunham when she was just 17. She started the Ruth Beckford African Haitian Dance Company, taught Dunham technique at her dance studios in Oakland and San Francisco and started the first modern dance department at a recreation department in the country. As talented as she was as a dancer, her interests were wide-ranging: She took up acting, wrote three books, several plays and was always actively serving her community, usually in projects she started.

She was born in Oakland, the youngest of four children of Felix and Cora Beckford. Her mother said her feet moved to music when she was still in the crib.

She began her dance training when she was 3, the only Black student of Florelle Batsford, studying tap, ballet, Spanish castanets, baton twirling and acrobatics, her specialty. As a child, she performed acrobatic dance at talent shows that were sponsored at movie theaters on Friday nights. She usually won. She graduated from Oakland Technical High School.

“I choreographed my life. Step by step, year by year.”

Dunham offered her a position in her company, but Beckford elected to continue her education and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She performed with the Anna Halprin and Welland Lathrop modern dance company, the only black dancer in the group. She said she could hear the audience gasp when she came onstage.

She was dedicated to dance but was determined not to be a starving artist, so she worked for the Oakland Recreation Department, where she insisted the dance classes would be free of charge. She used dance to teach life skills and encourage the girls to be self-sufficient and confident in their individuality. She stayed close to many of her former students for more than 50 years.

Beckford retired her company in 1965 and retired from teaching dance in 1975. One of her legacies is the group of 20 Black women students she inspired to go into dance education and lead college level dance departments, earning Masters and PhDs along the way.

She started acting with the Oakland Ensemble Theater and appeared in several movies, including “My Funny Valentine” with Alfre Woodard and Loretta Divine. Her play, “Tis the Morning of my Life,” was produced in the Bay Area and off Broadway.

At Katherine Dunham’s request, Beckford wrote Dunham’s biography. She also wrote “Still Groovin’” and co-wrote “The Picture Man,” published just last year.

She consistently found ways to help her community. She started the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program for children at St. Augustine Episcopal Church, which became a model for breakfast programs in public schools. She founded the oral history program at the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, capturing the stories of Oaklanders who were over 70 years old.

She counseled homeless people at the Berkeley office of the Department of Social Services, was a life skills counselor for the Oakland Private Industry Council and visited women’s prisons to talk about life skills and women’s empowerment. In 2018 she was named Oakland’s Mother of the Year.

Beckford was known for her elegant attire, which she designed. She still had the erect posture of a dancer at her 93rd birthday party. She was especially proud of The Ruth Beckford Museum at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 410 14th St., Oakland, open by appointment. In her words: “I choreographed my life. Step by step, year by year.”

According to her wishes, there will be no memorial service. Naima (Gwen) Lewis, Ph.D., one of Beckford’s adopted daughters, makes the following statement in explanation: “From 1925 to 2019, Oakland was given the eminent presence of Ruth Beckford. Her expectation of her beloved city is to be remembered for who she was and how she helped further others to become more.

“As the elder speaking for her six daughters who embraced her transition, we want to assure Oakland that she felt deep love from you all but wanted NO other recognition from its members after her departure. I appreciate your respecting her request to have no funeral, memorials, celebrations or activities in her honor or her name.”

Brenda Payton has been a journalist for more than 40 years. She wrote a column for the Oakland Tribune for 26 years. She can be reached at brendadance@sbcglobal.net.