Ruth Beckford and the African-Haitian Dance Movement

April 13, 2023 12:08 PM | Jennifer Sheriff

Ruth Beckford was a pioneering dancer, teacher, and author whose influence on the modern dance scene in the United States is still felt today. Born in Oakland, California, in 1925, Beckford began taking dance lessons at the young age of three and was performing professionally with her twin brothers by the age of eight. Her parents were both active in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, which instilled in Beckford a deep appreciation for African and Haitian dance and culture.

Beckford's talent and dedication to dance led her to join Katherine Dunham's Company during her senior year of high school in 1943. She then went on to study Physical Education and modern dance at the University of California, Berkeley, where she became the first African American member of the Orchesis Modern Dance Honor Society. After graduating in 1947, she directed the first recreational modern dance program in the country, teaching dance classes for the Oakland Recreation Department at DeFremery Recreation Center. She continued to perform with Anna Halprin and Welland Lathrop dance companies while leading the dance program for twenty years.

Ruth Beckford Inspired Great Success in Modern Dance

In 1954, Beckford founded her own dance company, the Ruth Beckford African-Haitian Dance Company, which toured across the country performing African and Haitian dances. The company's first performance was at the University of California, Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium. Beckford also opened dance studios in Oakland and San Francisco, where she taught classes in African-Haitian dance using the Dunham technique. Her influence on the modern dance scene in the Bay Area was profound, as she inspired and trained many dancers who went on to achieve great success in the field.

In addition to her accomplishments in dance and theater, Beckford is also credited with creating the menu and coordinating the first Black Panther Free Breakfast Program. She was a parishioner of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, which organized the first breakfast service in January 1969. Beckford's dedication to social justice and community empowerment was evident throughout her life, and her legacy as a dancer, teacher, and activist continues to inspire future generations.

Honoring Ruth Beckford's Contributions to Modern Dance and Social Justice

In conclusion, Ruth Beckford was a trailblazing figure in the world of modern dance, whose contributions to the field continue to be felt today. From her early beginnings as a young dancer in Oakland to her role as a mentor and teacher to generations of dancers, Beckford's impact on the dance world cannot be overstated. Her commitment to social justice and community empowerment is also an important part of her legacy, and her work in organizing the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program is just one example of her dedication to making a difference in her community. The papers and archives at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) are valuable resources for anyone interested in learning more about this remarkable woman and her life's work.

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