Skip to main content
Legacy Oral History Online Collection

Ruth Beckford

Ruth Beckford RESIZED.jpg

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.

-- Jeff Friedman

Audio Clip and Transcript

©Museum of Performance + Design