Ruth Beckford, trailblazer in the art of modern dance, spoke at the Jazz Heritage Center Theater in San Francisco last Sunday with Jazz Journalist Sonny Buxton of KCSM Radio.
Beckford, 88, gave a straightforward no nonsense take on her career and life choices. She began dancing at age three and never stopped. As the youngest of four children Beckford says she performed with her twin brothers.
“They would tap dance and I would end my acrobats with the splits and they would carry me off stage,” she said
She later became known for her acrobatic dance moves, high kicks, and excellent technique, which she says she learned while touring with dance legend Katherine Dunham.
“It was a great joy to be close to her,” said Beckford of her friendship with Dunham.
She graduated from Oakland Technical High School before attending UC Berkeley. While a student at Berkeley, she had a love for tennis, and applied to teach tennis at the recreation department. However, her background in dance opened the door for more opportunity.
“They really wanted someone to teach movement, so I started a dance class, the first dance program in the United States at the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation,” she said.
She helped establish the Oakland Dance Association and later taught dance classes at Defremery Park. While she encouraged young girls to dance to help build confidence, she also enlisted boys noting that dance was great for building muscles and endurance in athletes.
Beckford later taught at Katherine Dunham’s dance company in New York before deciding to open the Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company.
“I taught my students that if they knew how to dance, they would always have a job and if they knew why, they could be the boss,” she said.
Journalist Sonny Buxton considered Beckford a local gem and felt the event was necessary because her “story needed to be told.”
When asked about her longevity, Beckford smiled and said, ”Be true to [you] and know that happiness is an inside job.”