“Osumare has engaged with black dance as performer, choreographer, educator, arts administrator, researcher, and activist in the United States, Africa, and Europe, and through multiple careers. In this equal parts memoir, autoethnography, history, encyclopedic catalog, and sociocultural analysis, she traces her activities from the 1960s through the late 1990s, as she becomes a tenacious advocate for black dance. . . . An eclectic melange.”—Library Journal
“Finally someone who knows a dancer’s process and a choreographer’s vision that has tackled the mystery that is the magic of contemporary African American dance. In Dancing in Blackness, Halifu Osumare has extricated the fundamental influence of Dunham, the choreographic strategies of Rod Rodgers, Eleo Pomare, Chuck Davis, Donald McKayle, and Alvin Ailey, as well as illuminating the paths they created for Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, Garth Fagan, and Diane McIntyre. What a wealth of treasure and scholarly and aesthetic understanding Osumare brings to this often misunderstood and woefully neglected American art. Bravo!”—Ntozake Shange, author of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
“Dancing in Blackness belongs on every dancer’s and artist’s shelf. It is a wonderful personal telling of the black experience in dance, in art, in life, and of the dance world in Boston, New York, and the whole Bay Area. It is beautifully written—an engaging and fact-filled narrative where you meet the choreographers of the period, their work and visions, trials, successes, and triumphs.”—Donald McKayle, choreographer of Rainbow Round My Shoulder
“Halifu Osumare is a relevant voice from the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s. She has danced the talk, music, and history of that period and beyond. This is a must read for insight into a black artist’s personal and professional journey.”—Kariamu Welsh, editor of African Dance: An Artistic, Historical and Philosophical Inquiry
“Coming of age amid the counterculture and Black Power in San Francisco, Osumare becomes a professional dancer in Europe and New York before returning home to realize her mission as an artist, activist, and thinker. Her memoir reveals an astonishing ability to evoke and to historicize her lived experience.”—Susan Manning, author of Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion
“An unapologetic, rapturous travelogue detailing life, love, and an abiding mission to further the place of black dance in global histories.”—Thomas F. DeFrantz, author of Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture
“Osumare affirms the spiritual and tangible power for dance to teach, energize, heal, and inspire all peoples on this human journey.”—Joselli Audain Deans, consultant, Black Ballerina
Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir is a professional dancer’s personal journey over four decades, across three continents and twenty-three countries, and through defining moments in the story of black dance in America. In this memoir, Halifu Osumare reflects on what blackness and dance have meant to her life and international career.
Osumare’s story begins in 1960s San Francisco amid the Black Arts Movement, black militancy, and hippie counterculture. It was there that she chose dance as her own revolutionary statement. She moved to Europe, where she taught “jazz ballet” and established her own dance company in Copenhagen. Returning to the United States, she danced with the Rod Rodgers Dance Company in New York City and played key roles in integrating black dance programs into mainstream programming at the Lincoln Center. After dance fieldwork in Ghana, Osumare returned to California and helped develop Oakland’s black dance scene. Along the way, she collaborated with major artistic movers and shakers: among them, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Jean-Léon Destiné, and Donald McKayle.
Now a black studies scholar, Osumare uses her extraordinary experiences to reveal the overlooked ways that dance has been a vital tool in the black struggle for recognition, justice, and self-empowerment. This is the inspiring story of an accomplished dance artist and a world-renowned dance scholar who has boldly developed and proclaimed her identity as a black woman.
Halifu Osumare, professor emerita of African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis, is the author of The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip-Hop and The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves.
In this interview, Halifu Osumare tells us about her new book and her international dance career.
Why did you decide to write your memoir?
I know I have a unique life story, because as a woman I have danced and lived on three continents, many different countries, and throughout the U.S. I’ve also been on every side of dance that exists: performer, choreographer, administrator, producer, community activist, and scholar. I think people will enjoy, and maybe even be inspired by, my story.
How did you decide on the scope of time your memoir encompasses?
They say necessity is the mother of invention. I first wrote nine chapters, which brought the reader up to the current day. But it was far too long, and I realized that I actually had TWO books. Practicality made me conclude Dancing in Blackness at the beginning of 1994, just as I was moving to Hawai’i. Now I have the beginnings of a sequel.
Throughout your dancing career, who were your biggest influences and inspirations?
Without a doubt my greatest influence is one of the major doyens of dance, Katherine Dunham. I was blessed to meet her in the late ’80s, after studying her technique since my teens. Her artistry, social consciousness, and fearlessness as a black woman dancer reinforced those qualities in me. We became close as I studied with her and her former company members, culminating in my producing two major Dunham residencies: 1989 Stanford University and 1994 Hawaiian Islands. Of course, others like poet-playwright Ntozake Shange and choreographer Rod Rodgers also had great influences on my multi-layered approach to dance.
What did it feel like going to Ghana? How was dancing there different than in the United States and Europe?
Early on in my career I chose to focus on using dance to tell the story of my ancestors. Therefore going to Africa, and Ghana in particular, for the first time was an epiphany regarding the source of my personal dance choices. Chapter 3: “Dancing in Africa” represents my liberation as an African American. Choreographing and performing yet another version of my “Evolution of Black Dance” at the University of Ghana, Legon in 1976 was a milestone in my career. I could not have gotten that kind of personal and career empowerment anywhere else but Mother Africa.
You reveal that your friend, poet Ntozake Shange, gave you the name Halifu Osumare. What did it feel like to accept and take up that name?
It meant that my destiny had caught up with me, and that my new name revealed my life’s path. Since “Halifu” means to rebel against, my ability to define myself and reject the dominant narrative that negated my blackness as something positive was permanently established. My steadfast self-definition allowed me to develop my career in my own unique way. “Osumare,” the Yoruba deity of the Rainbow, reveals my many colors and shades, which has allowed me to be at home anywhere in the world, and accept everyone for who s/he is. Africans believe that one’s name is one’s destiny.
How did you make the transition from dancer to professor? What made you want to teach?
I have always wanted to understand the history and culture behind the dances and movement styles I studied and choreographed about. I always took the time to do research and to read about dance, particularly in relation to Af-ricanist cultures. So, when thinking about developing a second career after my performing years, becoming a scholar and academic was an easy transition. However, that didn’t preclude a lot of hard work (which I was already using in my dance training and dance administration), as well as the development of new analytical and theoretical skills.
You became the owner of Every Body’s Dance Studio in Oakland in 1977, which featured Congolese dance, Ghanaian drumming, and Afro-Haitian dance. How were you able to create such a unique dance scene in the Bay Area during a time that was focused predominantly on white modern dancing?
Besides being my home, the Bay Area has a vision of itself as encompassing cultural diversity and social inclusion (whether or not that is true). The home of hippiedom, higher education free speech, ethnic studies, the Black Panthers, Gay Rights, and many other progressive initiatives was a natural region to reinforce a multicultural dance center. Every Body’s Dance Studio was already in existence when I bought it and turned it into Everybody’s Creative Arts Center in Oakland; so, I reinforced the Africanist focus in an already existing multicultural dance studio in the progressive Bay Area.
What changes have you noticed in the dance community regarding race and discrimination between when you first started dancing professionally in the ’60s and now?
There definitely have been significant changes; but just as in the country as a whole, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Although the U.S. has changed significantly with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, we still have considerable racism and attempted discrimination in the country. The same exists in dance, where the ballet, symphony, and opera companies receive the bulk of the funding, and are still valued as the pentacle of high art. However, arts organizations representing communities of color are today getting more tax-based funding than when I first started dancing, because of some hard fought arts battles in which I participated in the ’80s at the state and national (NEA) levels. We must always remain vigilant against inequalities in the arts. This is the one sector where we can potentially change hearts.
What are you working on next?
I am planning the sequel to Dancing in Blackness. As I mentioned, I have the
first three chapters from my original draft that will begin my sequel. My story
in the follow-up memoir starts in Hawai’i, where I lived and danced for seven
years while earning my doctorate in American Studies from the University of
Hawai’i. The central theme of that book will be the transition from being an
artist to a scholar, and how I see both as a form of “dancing.” The task will be
putting my second career and the latter part of my life into the increasingly
21st century complexity of contemporary issues of race and the arts.