Omar Shabazz ’89

Omar Shabazz, Class of 1989

In my early years, I went to a private Muslim school and then to Frick Junior High in East Oakland. I have lived in West and North Oakland my whole life. When I was at Tech, there were close to 2000 students. The atmosphere was great in those years. Dennis Chaconas was responsible for a lot of the positive changes at Tech because he made a big effort to get kids from Claremont to go to Tech to keep the demographics of Tech reflective of the neighborhood that it served-West and North Oakland which created a really nice diversity. I had never been around that before. The campus was peaceful. There weren’t really any racial issues.

In my junior year, I took a dance class on a lark. You had to have a year of art to graduate and because of a glitch in my schedule, I got dance and PE, so I took both. The dance teacher was Lauren Manduke. She was amazing. It was pretty rare to have guys in the dance club that she also ran and she asked me to be in it. I had played junior varsity football, but hadn’t made the varsity team so I took Lauren up on her suggestion to join the club and decided to try something different. When you are a kid, having someone invite and encourage you to do something feels really nice.

The day I decided to try the club was the day that the dance clubs from all the high schools came to Tech and master teachers from the different dance schools came to teach classes after school. The Director of the Oakland Ballet, Ron Guidi, was at Tech that very day. After he taught the class, he asked two of us to talk to him and he told us that we were good enough to have careers in ballet! Ron invited me to come to his class for free, which I did, and then after my very first class, he asked me to learn the “Wooden Soldier Dance” from “The Nutcracker!” Within six weeks, I was on stage performing with a professional dance company. It was incredible.

I wasn’t some sort of ballet prodigy. I could even be the class clown, but Ron saw something in me. One of Ron’s things was that that he wanted his company to reflect the diversity of city that he grew up in and we was committed to giving local kids a shot. That is an important part of his story. He changed my life. And not just mine. I am one of many kids whose lives he changed. The kids I grew up with in dance and I all consider Ron a father figure. He has seen a lot of us come and go over 35 years. A lot of important talent came through the Oakland Ballet. He did a lot of important work.

Even though I was on a path, school was still my first priority. My senior year I had The Techniques 2-3 times a week rehearsing our shows. We did our own choreography and put on our own dance spring concert. And I took class 3-4 nights a week at the Oakland Ballet Academy and was there on Saturdays.

I got a lot of experience in “The Nutcracker.” It was kind of like the minor leagues. I had about a ten year run with ballet, performing through my twenties. Then in 1997 I had some injuries that kept me from enjoying it. It got harder to feel that I was improving. I worked outside of the arts for a while in sales and it was nice to make a better living, but I always came back to teach classes. Ron asked me to help with student groups and I always found some way to stay connected to dance.

Now I am on staff at Ballet Petit in Hayward and Oakland Ballet School, the school that I grew up in even though it is no longer connected with the Oakland Ballet. I plan to keep focusing on teaching. It is what makes me happiest and it is what I do best. I am happy to be living a dancer’s life again.

I was fortunate to go to Tech when I did. The diversity there taught me a lot about different kinds of people. I realized that I could get along with a lot of people I had never really been around before.

I remember a lot of my teachers. I took French for 4 years with Mr. Kevin Rudy. He was really hard on me (I was late and ate junk food), but I loved his class. When I traveled after my retirement, the first place I went to was Paris because of the influence of his class. French had opened up that whole world for me. Mr. Cuttitta taught me physiology. He was a really fun teacher. He ran the class in a unique way: he didn’t give homework. He just gave the material and expected you to learn it. He lasted 40 years at Tech! I remember on the first day of school, he’d say to certain kids, “I taught your dad. I taught your mom.” Mr. Albert Perry taught me English. He really challenged us in class¬– be better, be smarter. He was African American and he knew how to push us. I am still close with kids from that class. He got us to really think and debate about things. But I am closest to my dance teacher, Lauren Manduke. She was always really supportive.   I learned so much from my Tech teachers.

Now that I am a teacher myself, I realize that when you are a kid, you think of your teacher as your nemesis. It’s like combat, but I have grown to appreciate all the care and love that teachers put into their work. Teaching really is the noblest profession. There is no way to be a teacher without at least having noble intentions. There is an art to teaching. My teachers showed me how to run a class, that you can engage the kids without being mean, that they can enjoy participating, that you can get them to want to expand their minds and learn more. I am fortunate to have teachers that helped me understand the value of all that.

I am extremely proud to be a Bulldog. I’m a Bulldog till I die. I was always so proud of the fact that so many celebrities came out of Tech. It has a really rich history. I am proud to have gone to the same school as Ricky Henderson, the Pointer Sisters, Clint Eastwood. I walked the same halls as some of Oakland’s greatest legends.

Every generation has its own challenges. I grew up after the AIDS epidemic in the era of drive-by shootings and crack cocaine. All that cast a shadow over our generation, but every generation has its own challenges. From what I hear, the kids at Tech now are fortunate to have some really good teachers who care about them a lot. They should appreciate that.

This dance performance, featuring Omar and 2015 graduate Deon Oddone, was recorded at the “Technites Past and Present Talent Showcase” on February 8th, 2015: