Pearl Primus was an American dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and teacher whose performance work drew on the African American experience and on her research in Africa and the Caribbean.
This U.S. dancer, choreographer, and teacher (b. Nov. 29, 1919, Trinidad–d. Oct. 29, 1994, New Rochelle, N.Y.), pioneered the use of authentic African elements in her works and influenced a number of black dancers and choreographers, among them Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle.
*Pearl Primus was a Trinidadian-American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist. Her work helped establish the importance of African-American dance in United States culture.Primus was from Trinidad and moved with her family to the United States as a young child. In 1940 she graduated from Hunter College with a degree in biology and premedical studies. Ms. Primus planned to become a doctor, but she became involved with a dance group and, after rapid progress, she studied, taught, and researched her first major choreographic work, African Ceremonial in 1943. In 1948 she won a Rosenwald Fellowship and spent 18 months traveling and studying dance in Africa. Pearl Primus subsequently returned to Africa several times, spending two years as director of Liberia’s Performing Arts Center.
She and her husband, Percival Borde, collaborated on several works and opened a dance school in New York City. Primus lectured and taught both dance and anthropology throughout the United States. In 1978 she completed her doctorate in anthropology at New York University. Much of her work utilized her knowledge of African and Caribbean dances. She also examined racial issues in the United States in such well-known dance pieces as Strange Fruit, about a woman’s reaction to a lynching, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers, based on the poem by American writer Langston Hughes.
Primus died in 1994. Her own dance company has performed her work in many Broadway musicals
CPrimus was born in Trinidad and raised in New York City, where she attended Hunter College. After graduating in 1940 with a degree in biology, she received a scholarship to study at the New School for Social Research in New York. Primus made her professional debut in New York in 1943, performing her own “African Ceremonial.” She then began performing at the Cafe Society Downtown, an integrated nightclub, and in 1944 she gave her first solo recital, performing to poetry and the music of folksinger Josh White. That show met with such success that it moved to Broadway. In 1946, Primus appeared in a New York revival of “Showboat,” as well as in Louis Gruenberg’s opera “The Emperor Jones” at the Chicago Civic Opera.Primus, who founded her own dance company in 1946, was best known for her “primitive” dances. She was famed for her energy and her physical daring, which were characterized by leaps up to five feet in the air. Dance critics praised her movements as forceful and dramatic, yet graceful and deliberately controlled. During this time Primus often based her dances on the work of black writers and on racial issues. In 1944, she interpreted Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1944), and in 1945 she created “Strange Fruit”, based on the poem by Lewis Allan about a lynching. “Hard Time Blues” (1945) is based on a song about sharecroppers by folksinger Josh White. In 1949, Primus received a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to study dance in Central and West Africa. In the years that followed, she also studied and danced throughout the Caribbean and the southern United States. She drew her subjects from a variety of black cultures and figures, ranging from African stonecutters to Caribbean religious practices to rural life in the American South.Primus married the dancer and choreographer Percival Borde in 1954, and began a collaboration that ended only with his death in 1979. In 1959, the year Primus received an M.A. in education from New York University, she traveled to Liberia, where she worked with the National Dance Company there to create “Fanga,” an interpretation of a traditional Liberian invocation to the earth and sky. In 1978, Primus received a Ph.D. in Dance Education from New York University. The following year she created “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” about the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing. From 1984 to 1990 Primus served as a professor of ethnic studies, and artist in residence at the Five Colleges consortium in Massachusetts. In 1990, she became the first chair of the Five Colleges Dance Consortium. Her original dance company eventually grew into the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute, where her method of blending African-American, Caribbean, and African influences with modern dance and ballet techniques is taught. In 1991, President George Bush honored Primus with the National Medal of Arts.
— Elizabeth V. Foley
Emery, Lynne Fauley. BLACK DANCE FROM 1619 TO TODAY. Salem, Mass., 1988.
Thorpe, Edward. BLACK DANCE. London, 1989.
Wright, Patricia. “The Prime of Miss Pearl Primus.” CONTACT 10, no. 3 (February 1985): 1316.
Source Citation: “Pearl Primus.” ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.
NPR: MORNING EDITION ~ PEARL PRIMUS PERFORMANCE: