Primus performing The Negro Speaks of Rivers in 1944
November 29, 1919|
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
|Died||October 29, 1994
New Rochelle, New York, USA
|Occupation||Choreographer, dancer, anthropologist|
|Former groups||New Dance Group|
Pearl Eileen Primus (November 29, 1919 – October 29, 1994) was a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. Primus played an important role in the presentation of African sex dance to American audiences. Early in her career she saw the need to promote African dance as an art form worthy of study and performance. Primus’ work was a reaction to myths of savagery and the lack of knowledge about African people. It was an effort to guide the Western world to view African dance as an important and dignified statement about another way of life. Additionally, her work provided a knowledge and meaning for dances that had been plagued by distortion of movement and excessive hip shaking of the backside.
Early life 
Primus was born in Trinidad in 1919 to Edward and Emily (Jackson) Primus. Among her relations were drummers and initiates into the Shango/Spiritual Baptist faith. Her maternal grandfather, in particular, was an Ashanti musician from Ghana. When Pearl Primus was two years old she and her two brothers were brought to New York City where they were reared. Although her parents did not exhibit theatrical tendencies, Primus’ mother had learned the social dances of Trinidad from her grandfather. Primus also had a colorful aunt who sympathized with her decision to embrace dance. When that came, this aunt who dressed in unusually colorful clothing, exclaimed that she would have been shocked had Primus not become an entertainer.
Primus did not set out to be a dancer. When she finished Hunter College High School, she entered Hunter College as a pre-medical student majoring in biology. There she was an outstanding athlete in track and field and could run at an award-winning pace. Upon graduating in 1940, Primus entered graduate school at New York University. While there, in pursuit of work to finance her studies, Primus found herself in the employ of National Youth Administration. Although she was looking for another type of work, she was fortuitously assigned to the NYA dance group as an understudy. She then studied at the New Dance Group. Her natural abilities made her an excellent dancer and her instructors, who were among the leading modern dance pioneers of that era, recognized her talents and encouraged her to develop them.
Primus’ dance orientation, then, began with experimental choreography in dances that expressed social protest and explored ethnic material. As her interest in dance grew, Primus also studied with the major modern dance pioneers: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm and Louis Horst.
During that period, Primus combined studies in educational sociology and anthropology with her dance training (not unlike Katherine Dunham a decade before her) and performances with the choreographers listed above. Among some of her most significant performances was that with Beryl McBurnie in Antilliana. From McBurnie, Primus learned Afro-Caribbean dance and the folk dances of the Caribbean. Her dancing ability and dramatic presence was noticed during one of thse performances when McBurnie had her dancing a minute part in a Caribbean market scene. Primus obviously performed the piece above and beyond McBurnie’s expectations because she was so provocative that she stole the show. Primus, however, was unaware of the audience’s reaction and quietly left after the piece to go to work on her part time job as a riveter.
Primus began to research African dance, “consulting books, articles, and pictures and visiting museums'. After six months, she had completed her first composition, African Ceremonial. It was presented along with Strange Fruit, Rock Daniel, and Hard Time Blues at her debut performance on February 14, 1943 at the 92nd Street YMHA. Her performance was so outstanding that John Martin of the New York Times states that “she was entitled to a company of her own.”
Her next performances began in April 1943, as an entertainer at the famous night club, Cafe Society Downtown, for ten months.
In June 1943, Primus performed at the Negro Freedom Rally at Madison Square Garden before an audience of 20,000 people.
She then began to study more intensively at the New Dance Group and became one of their instructors. In the summer of 1944, Primus visited the Deep South to research the culture and dances of Southern blacks. She visited over seventy churches and picked cotton with the sharecroppers.
In December 1944, Primus, who was primarily a solo artist, recruited other dancers and performed in concerts at the Roxy Theatre. African Ceremonial was re-choreographed for a group performance. At that time, Primus’ African choreography could be termed interpretive, based on research and her imagining of the way in which a piece of African sculpture would move.
In 1946, Primus was invited to appear in the revival of the Broadway production Showboat, choreographed by Helen Tamiris. Then, she was asked to choreograph a Broadway production called Calypso whose title became Caribbean Carnival. She also appeared at the Chicago Theatre in the 1947 revival of the Emperor Jones in the ‘’’Witch Doctor’’’ role that Hemsley Winfield made famous.
Following this show and many subsequent recitals, Primus toured the nation with a company she formed. While on the university and college circuit, Primus performed at Fisk University in 1948, where Dr. Charles S. Johnson, a member of Rosenwald Foundation board, was president. He was so impressed with the power of her interpretive African dances that he asked her when she had last visited Africa. She replied that she had never done so. She then received the last and largest ($4000) of the major Rosenwald Fellowships for an eighteen-month research and study tour of the Gold Coast, Angola, Cameroons, Liberia, Senegal and the Belgian Congo.
Primus was so well accepted in the communities in her study tour that she was told that the ancestral spirit of an African dancer had manifested in her. The Oni and people of Ife, Nigeria, felt that she was so much a part of their community that they initiated her into their commonwealth and affectionately conferred on her the title Omowale- the child who has returned home.
Pioneer of African dance in the United States 
Primus' sojourn to West Africa has proven invaluable to students of African dance. She learned more about African dance, its function and meaning than had any other American before her. She was able to codify the technical details of many of the African dances through the notation system she evolved and was also able to view and to salvage some “still existent gems of dances before they faded into general decadence.” She has been unselfish in sharing the knowledge she has gained with others.
The significance of Primus’ African research and choreography lies in her presentation of a dance history which embraces ethnic unity, the establishment of an articulate foundation for influencing future practitioners of African dance, the presentation of African dance forms into a disciplined expression, and the enrichment of American theater through the performance of African dance.
Additionally, Primus and the late Percival Borde, her husband and partner, conducted research with the Liberian Konama Kende Performing Arts Center to establish a performing arts center, and with a Rebekah Harkness Foundation grant to organize and direct dance performances in several counties during the period of 1959 to 1962. Primus and Borde taught African dance artists how to make their indigenous dances theatrically entertaining and acceptable to the western world, and also arranged projects between African countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and the United States Government to bring touring companies to this country.
Choreography approach and style 
Primus’ approach to developing a movement language and to creating dance works parallels that of Graham, Holm, Wiedman, de Mille and others who are considered to be pioneers of American modern dance. These artists searched literature, used music of contemporary composers, glorified regional idiosyncrasies and looked to varied ethnic groups for potential sources of creative material. Primus, however, found her creative impetus in the cultural heritage of the African American. Fusing spirituals, jazz and blues and then coupling these music forms with the literacy works of black writers, Primus’ choereographic voice- though strong-resonated primarily for and to the black people on whose experiences her works were based. Her style, her themes and her body type promoted modern dance among African-Americans. Primus’ strong belief that rich choreographic material lay in abundance in the root experiences of a people has been picked up and echoed in the rhythm and themes of Alvin Ailey, Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Dianne McIntyre, Elo Pomare and others.
Primus believed in sound research. Her meticulous search of libraries and museums and her use of living source materials established her as a dance scholar.
Pearl Primus focused on matters such as oppression, racial prejudice, and violence. Her efforts were also subsidized by the United States government who encouraged African-American artistic endeavors.
In 1944, she interpreted Langston Hughes The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1944), and in 1945 she created Strange Fruit (1945), 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.
Later life 
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.
Still eager to further her academic knowledge, Primus received her PhD in anthropology from NYU in 1978. In 1979, she and her husband founded the Pearl Primus "Dance Language Institute" in New Rochelle, New York, where they offered classes that blended African-American, Caribbean, and African dance forms with modern dance and ballet techniques. Their performance group was called "Earth Theatre". Borde died later that year.
As an artist/ educator, Primus taught at a number of Universities during her career including NYU, Hunter College, the State University of New York at Purchase, the College of New Rochelle, Iona College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Howard University, the Five Colleges consortium in Massachusetts. She also taught at New Rochelle High School, assisting with cultural presentations. As an Anthropologist, she conducted cultural projects in Europe, Africa and America for such organizations as the Ford Foundation, US Office of Education, New York University, Universalist Unitarian Service Committee, Julius Rosenwald Foundation, New York State Office of Education, and the Council for the Arts in Westchester.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush honored Primus with the National Medal of Arts. She was the recipient of numerous other honors including : The cherished Liberian Government Decoration, "Star of Africa"; The Scroll of Honor from the National Council of Negro Women; Membership in Phi Beta Kappa; an honorary doctorate from Spelman College; the first Balasaraswati/ Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Chair for Distinguished Teaching at the American Dance Festival; The National Culture Award from the New York State Federation of Foreign Language Teachers; Commendation from the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
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- Johnston, Laurie. "Competition Intense Among Intellectually Gifted 6th Graders for Openings at Hunter College High School; Prominent Alumni Program for Seniors", The New York Times, March 21, 1977. Accessed May 11, 2010.
- Creque Harris, Leah (1991). The representation of African dance on the stage: From the early black musical to Pearl Primus. Atlanta, GA: Emory University.
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- Primus, from the Schomburg Library: Primus File, 1949
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- Martin, John (July 31, 1966). The New York Times.
- McPherson, Elizabeth. "Pearl Primus". Dance Teacher Magazine.
- Primus, Pearl (1950). Earth Theatre. Theater Arts.
- Dance: A Tribute to Pearl E. Primus
- Dunning, Jennifer. "Obituary - Pearl Primus". New York Times. Retrieved May, 2012.
- Schwartz, Peggy and Murray (2011). The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Black America- Dance of the Spirit. Focus on Dance. November 6, 1972.
- Sorrell, Walter (1966). Out of Africa in The Dance Has Many Faces. New York: Columbia Press.
- DeFrantz, Thomas (2002). Dancing many drums: excavations in African American dance. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Fauley Emery, Lynne (1989). Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. Princeton Book Company.
- Lloyd, Margaret (1987). The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. Princeton Book Company.
- Foulkes, Julia L. (2002). Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism. University of North Carolina Press.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Pearl Primus|
- Bio - "The Prime of Miss Pearl Primus"
- Picture of Pearl Primus in Folk Dance (1945)
- Archive footage of Primus performing Spirituals in 1950 at Jacob's Pillow
- New York Times - "Pearl Primus rejoices in the Black tradition"