The 1970s were a time in America when black people awakened to their African heritage and were taking on new names more fitting their history and characters. For dancer and choreographer, Halifu Osumare it was no different, as she allowed her friend, writer, Ntozake Shange, to name her in 1975.
“Halifu means, ‘the independent, rebellious child in the family.’ ‘Osumare’ is the deity of the rainbow from the Yoruba. I always say my name means ‘the independent child of the rainbow.’” She said in a recent interview.
Independent and visionary are certainly descriptors that are characteristic of Osumare’s path. Reared in the lower Fillmore in San Francisco, the Galveston, Texas native grew up in a working class family, with mom and step-dad firm believers in the power of education and literacy. This is certainly not the back story one expects from the woman who went on to establish Citicentre Dance Theatre in Oakland and the national dance initiative Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, but the stoicism on the mainland was balanced out by a dad and step-mom—Osumare’s second family— who knew how to have fun.
“My dad and step-mom were the party people,” Osumare said of her summer visits down south. “They used to have friends over and they’d read poetry and things like that. I’d say, wow, it’s totally different than my austere educationally orientated main parents. I used to love listening to music. I got my first orientation to jazz by listening to Cannonball Adderley and they played a lot of Billie Holiday. I remember not being able to appreciate her voice and their saying, ‘Just keep listening and living and you’ll get it.’” Osumare laughed.
So at 18 when she entered college at San Francisco State University, though dance beaconed, Osumare was practical and majored in psychology. Compromising a bit when her professor, Nontsizi Cayou suggested she minor in dance. The same professor recommended her to New York based dancer, Zak Thompson, when he was looking for dancers for a night-club show in San Francisco. Osumare recalled the “live drummers, make-shift costumes, and choreography which was more modern with a bit of African flavor.” But real or not, Osumare got paid. It was then that she realized she could make a career from dance and she began at once to study everything, especially African-derived dance, intent on getting as good as she could. She subsequently switched her major to dance.
Three years later Martin King was killed. It was 1968. Just a year short from a degree, Osumare left San Francisco State and the country. Like many of her generation, she didn’t want to be here anymore. She traveled to Europe to study with former Katherine Dunham dancers in Stockholm. She says that during the next three years of study she became a professional dancer and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area ready to do her thing.
Upon her return from Europe, Osumare completed her BA at the University without Walls, an affiliate of UC Berkeley. She used all of her experience up to that point and wrote a paper on the evolution of black dance, which sparked her putting together a show that she took into the public schools. She also moved to Oakland. Though she never published the paper, it became the basis of all subsequent research, including elements of her dissertation in American Studies at the University of Hawaii and the earlier master’s degree in Dance Ethnology at San Francisco State. During this time she saved her money to go abroad for a year-long study program, 1975-76, at the University of Ghana as an auditor in the School of Dance, Music and Drama that allowed her to be immersed in the many ethnic dance and music forms of Ghana.
When Osumare returned from Africa she understood better the origins of black dance in America coming from Africa and wanted to utilize this information. She didn’t have the goal of establishing a center at that point. She just resumed teaching at Everybody’s Dance Studio, on 51st and Broadway in Oakland. The studio was co-owned by two women, Ferolyn Angel and a belly dancer by the name of Shiraz who asked Osumare if she would like to buy the business. Her parents loaned her the money and in 1977 she became the owner of a dance studio, which she renamed Everybody’s Creative Art Center, turning the business into a nonprofit charitable organization.
Osumare recalled, “One of the things I learned in creating the center was a good leader is one that surrounds him or herself with competent people because you cannot do it all yourself and you need to have competent people who believe in the vision you create. So my vision was to continue the multicultural nature of Everybody’s Dance Studio but definitely put my stamp on it, which was African-based dance forms—but I didn’t limit it to that. The African men, I don’t think there were any women in the area at that point, kind of gravitated to the place, and I knew them all. I went to CK Ledzekpo and asked him to come and teach there, not just African dance, but music. We had a music program in the beginning. He taught Ghanaian drumming.”
Katherine Dunham believed in socialization through dance, that dance and music could help the individual to understand her place in society and the culture. These were the principles Osumare used to establish her dance center. She later went to East St. Louis to study with Ms. Dunham in the 1980s.
“Those basic concepts underpin everything we were doing in dance: Dance as a way of life. The arts were not just for putting (work) on stage but for community and self-development.” Osumare said. “In creating Everybody’s Creative Art Center, we wanted teachers who were about using their dance and music forms to educate people and create a sense of community and unity and that’s exactly what happened.”
Osumare went on to explain that parents were encouraged to bring their children to classes and to enroll them in special programs where children were “socialized into a sense that Africa was to be held high and that the music and the dance was a way of expressing themselves and a way of belonging to a collective and to a community that cared about them.” These values were attractive to other community members, people from additional ethnic groups: “whites, Asians and any others who were interested in that type of human connection.” Osumare continued.
“The studio’s reputation was built around that.” She said. “This reputation spread throughout Africa and the Diaspora because when new immigrants would come from the Congo, Senegal, Guinea, Brazil, Cuba they had already heard about the Center in the Bay Area. They had brothers and sisters who’d told them about it, and the next generation was coming to stay with older relatives to help them get a start, and they would come to me and say, ‘I want to teach. I was a professional in our national dance company, and now I’m here.’ And I would hire them and the beat would go on.”
Katherine Dunham’s legacy and by extension here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ruth Beckford’s, are so integral to the form because when Ms. Beckford took African-derived dance into Oakland Parks and Recreation Centers black people were ashamed at being black, let alone African. Now that there are no longer dance programs in the parks and recreation centers in Oakland, it is difficult for black children to access the creative tools innate in cultural expression: dance, music and song which would help them know who they are and better negotiate the challenges they face daily. Osumare stated “it’s up to the dancers and choreographers in their 20s and 30s to reestablish institutions and programs to save our children and preserve our culture.”
Osumare said about her position as artistic director for ten years (1977-88), “I learned how to fundraise, how to do publicity, how to do programming, how to do staff development—all of those skills I learned or taught myself. It was like on the job training. I would go to workshops and classes when they were offered in arts management. I’m the type of person, if I’m going to do something I’m going to try to get all the skills that I can, to do it well. That’s what I did as a dancer/choreographer and that’s what I did as an arts administrator.”
She also choreographed for the in-house collective called Citicentre Dance Theatre, while teaching at Stanford University. In 1988-89 Everybody’s Creative Art Center name was changed to CCDT at the annual Multicultural Festival of Dance and Music at the Calvin Simmons Theatre in Oakland. The move was to address the changing times, she said. “This was a time of Reganism and the government was de-funding community art and funding the excellence of professional art. The name change was simply positioning ourselves in the times. That’s how we rationalized it. People still called us Everybody’s Creative Arts Center, but over time the name became colloquial in terms of community use. The name change happened at the time I was leaving.”
“Another thing I really wanted to do before I left as artistic director was to stabilize the organization by getting it into a building. The Alice Arts Center—now Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts—was the fourth building we were located in within those ten years. That instability of having to move because of being under year-to-year leases and landlords wanting to move you out for various reasons was aggravating. So when the City of Oakland put money into refurbishing the Alice Arts and put out a call for proposals, we wanted to be one of the main tenants there. I remember the Oakland Ballet, the Oakland Ensemble Theatre, Dimensions Dance Theater and other organizations and we all wanted to be there because we could see it was where the city was focusing its resources and its money for the arts. We had a good board of directors and we lobbied and became one of the main tenants of the second floor.”
Currently, Osumare is professor at UC Davis and serves as a consultant on grant review panels for national initiatives. She has moved on, but not beyond reach of her protégées like Laura Elaine Ellis and Kendra Kimbrough who revived the dance initiative Osumare founded—“Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century”—with a new name and expanded vision, “Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now.”
There is still a need for African-derived dance, Osumare stated. “Given Oakland’s demographics it’s obvious that you’ve got to have culturally relevant programs in schools. I see some continuing institution building around black dance in Oakland such as ‘Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now’ which is an annual event. I was very glad to see Kendra and Laura stepping forward and doing that.”
Osumare said Oakland is still a hotbed for opportunity for rebuilding institutions like Citicentre, which she felt were important because it was a vehicle that could lobby and advocate for the arts organizations under its roof. The word unity was one spoken frequently during this conversation. She said its absence led to Citicentre’s demise.
“I never wanted to depend on white institutions to do it for me, or that I needed to go under a larger umbrella in order to do what I needed to do. I knew that I needed to create my own institutions and to have power over it in order to really do it in the way I knew it needed to be done for my people, so that’s what I did—rolled up my sleeves and found people who were of like minds and spirits and did it. And that’s what it takes with each generation.” Osumare said.
Osumare sees herself dancing in a different way now through her academic work and consulting: “the movement, the music, the spoken word and the written word all come from the same source. That’s how I see the kind of through line in my life and my commitment to the African Diaspora and really illuminating it.”
This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of In Dance.