From dance revolutionary to hip-hop prof, she stayed in step with the times

Halifu Osumare reads from her memoir "Dancing in Blackness"

Halifu Osumare, of Sacramento, Calif., performs a reading of her newly released memoir, "Dancing in Blackness." She is a celebrated dancer, academic and social activist.
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Halifu Osumare, of Sacramento, Calif., performs a reading of her newly released memoir, "Dancing in Blackness." She is a celebrated dancer, academic and social activist.

For the woman known as UC Davis' "hip-hop professor," movement always has been more than just an academic exercise.

Halifu Osumare spent nearly four decades as a professional dancer, performing in 23 countries across the globe. Stops on her remarkable journey included being a ballerina in Oakland, a disco dancer in Barcelona and a performer on Broadway.

Working with some of the world's most influential dancers and companies, she went on to become an accomplished modern dance choreographer and founded her own dance company. But she longed to know more of the history and meaning behind the expressive art form. She traveled to Ghana in the 1970s to study the roots of popular dance there, and then taught at several universities including Stanford before becoming a full-fledged professor at UCD.

After serving as director and department chair of UCD's African American and African Studies, Osumare retired in 2016 with multiple degrees and an international reputation. She now shares the memories of an inimitable life in a new book, "Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir" (University Press of Florida, 380 pages, $34.95).

"This is a book I've been writing all my life," said Osumare, 71, who lives in Sacramento.

"Dancing in Blackness - A Memoir" was published in February 2018. Autumn Payne

As illustrated in her memoir, Osumare repeatedly has found herself in interesting places during times of conflict and change. She came of age during the Black Arts Movement, black militancy, college strikes and hippiedom. And it was through dance that she made her political and artistic statements.

As a child, Osumare moved with her family from Texas to the Bay Area. She considers herself in part a product of that time and place. For example, she was a student at San Francisco State University in 1968 when students launched a five-month strike.

"A lot of my consciousness as a black person and as an artist was nurtured by the revolutionary '60s in the Bay Area," she said.

Osumare's work eventually took her to Europe, where she founded her own "jazz ballet" company in Copenhagen. She learned from such luminaries as Katherine Dunham, Rod Rodgers and Alvin Ailey. Her mentors form a who's who of black modern dance in terms of both performance and philosophy.

"Dance is not just steps but the summoning of a larger consciousness plus the spirit and soul to communicate something," she said.

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Halifu Osumare, of Sacramento, photographed in 1974. Photo courtesy of Bill Santos

With bravery to match her free spirit, Osumare let dance be her ticket to adventure.

"I always wanted to travel to see if other parts of the world were as crazy as (America)," she recalled. "In 1968, things were going berserk — riots, assassinations — it was terrible. I was a black hippie and there was a whole network of people, going to Europe. ... I brought a tape with me of music I really liked that I could dance to. I talked my way into (a job at) the biggest discotheque in Barcelona. As a black American woman, I had a cachet. I became an attraction. It was a way to make money and keep going."

After a lifetime of dancing, traveling, studying and teaching, Osumare has found time to reflect and write. The Natomas home she shares with husband, artist Gene Howell, is filled with paintings, African carvings and mementos.

"He gave me a painting on our first date," she said. "He must have known it was going to last."

Osumare remains active in the dance community, teaching occasional workshops. Last year, she choreographed "In the Eye of the Storm," a special piece for Sacramento Black Art of Dance and a dance concert celebrating the company's 25th anniversary.

"Halifu has made it her life's work to teach others about the importance of mind, body (and) spirit connections through the art of dance," said Linda Goodrich, S/BAD's founder and Osumare's longtime friend.

Although cranky knees have slowed her down some, Osumare keeps moving.

"Age is nothing but a number; that's how I see it," she said. "I try to keep myself healthy — especially as a dancer, that's important. I have arthritis in my knees. I can't jump and turn like I used to. But I still work out three, four, five times a week."

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Halifu Osumare, of Sacramento, is the writer of "Dancing in Blackness - A Memoir," a book about her dancing career which spanned nearly 40 years. Autumn Payne

Osumare takes her memoir many steps beyond dance. It explores the relationship between dance and culture from the perspective of someone who celebrated both, intertwined.

That mingling of movement and message is at the core of modern dance.

"It's why audiences are drawn to certain types of choreography," she explained. "Take Alvin Ailey's classic, 'Revelations.' It's about how the black spirit is able to survive. It always gets a standing ovation, it has such a powerful impact. It's not talking so much about race, but the approach to being human. That came through African sensibilities, and through dance. It really is able to communicate a certain essence to all human beings about what it means to be human."

Released last month, "Dancing in Blackness" has received positive notices from critics as well as the arts community.

"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," wrote the Library Journal in its review. "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."

"Halifu is a very complex and independent woman who strives to keep the Africanist aesthetic as part of the national dialogue on black art forms, and the importance of black expression in any form," said Goodrich, who retired from Sacramento State University last year. "Her book is a testament to the power of dance to address social justice issues today and how she has always used this as a format for black expression. "

Decades ago, Osumare and Goodrich both danced for Oakland's Citicentre Dance Theatre. Osumare later served as the company's artistic director for 10 years.

Born Janis Miller, Osumare credits her friend, poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, for giving her the name "Halifu" in 1975. "It means independent, rebellious child," Osumare said. "It still fits." (Osumare means "rainbow.")

"Dancing in Blackness" covers Osumare's life in the arts before the hip-hop explosion, which later became a focus of her academic career. "I became part of a whole cadre of hip-hop scholars," she said. "That's where I found my niche — the globalization of hip-hop."

Her two earlier books were devoted to hip-hop: "The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves" and "The Hiplife in Ghana: Western African Indigenization of Hip-Hop."

Always on the lookout for new forms of music and dance, Osumare first came in touch with hip-hop while living in Hawaii more than a quarter century ago.

"There were these kids listening to music and acting just like kids back in Oakland," she said. "They had nothing in common but this music. If this music could influence these kids in rural Hawaii — with chickens running around, miles from nowhere — and also reach those kids back in Oakland, I wanted to know more. That's what got me started on hip-hop."

From a scholarly perspective, Osumare has studied how popular music connects youth in many countries.

"Hip-hop isn't just in America," she said. "All popular music today stems from African-based musicality. No matter where you go in the world, you're going to hear hip-hop. It goes below the surface. ... That's why people all over the world respond to popular music; they're not dancing in clubs to Mozart."

Black dance, too, spans the world as it reflects multiple cultures and influences.

"The principle of black dance is different that other dance," Osumare said. "First, it's poly-rhythmic. You've got to be able to carry more than one rhythm at a time. Also, you have to be good at more than one type of dance form. In ballet, you master ballet. In black dance, you need to know ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, African. You've got to be versatile in order to do black dance because the choreographer is pulling from all these influences."

Osumare soon will embark on a national tour to publicize her new book with stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and elsewhere.

"I'll talk about the different eras, places and people," she said. "I'll talk about (dance legends) Katherine Dunham and Rod Rodgers and others who influenced my career. People say, 'You lived through so much history. ...'"

They would be right.