Primus, Pearl 1919–
Pearl Primus 1919–
Dancer, choreographer, educator
Pearl Primus is the grandmother of black dance as ethnic study and art. She has performed visually dramatic African and African-based dances, often accompanied by singing and drumming, and dances about the black experience in America. Her so-called “primitive” dances grew out of her anthropological research and travels in Africa and the Caribbean; her modern dances grew out of her reaction to racial prejudice. Primus was the first dancer to present the African American experience within a framework of social protest in dances such as Strange Fruit, Hard Times Blues, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Also known in educational circles, the award-winning performer holds a doctorate in anthropology and educational sociology and has taught dance in her own schools in New York and elsewhere. She also has taught ethnic studies at the Five Colleges—a consortium consisting of Amherst, Smith, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges, and the University of Massachusetts—and dance education at New York University.
Since the 1940s, Primus has danced alone and with others, choreographed for her own company, and readapted her works for other dancers and companies, most notably for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She is known for her use of elevation and sense of weight. In 1943 she gave her first professional dance concert in New York City at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) along with other accomplished artists, but it was she who stood out. New York Times critic John Martin gave her YMHA performance a rave review and later called her the outstanding new dancer of the season. He wrote, “Her body had superb control and range and she could outjump any man.” In the Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, author Margaret Lloyd wrote admiringly of Primus’s “speed and elevation,” “running jumps,” “undulating rhythms,” and “whirlwind spins” when she performed. In 1992 videographers were engaged to document her life’s work.
Back in 1968, Primus told a Dance Magazine interviewer about the therapeutic effect dancing held for her: “Dance is my medicine. It’s the scream which eases for awhile the terrible frustration common to all human beings who, because of race, creed or color, are ‘Invisible.’ Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice.…Instead of growing twisted like a gnarled tree … I am able to dance out my anger and my frustrations.” By 1992 her views had broadened. She told Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post, “I think it was really a mandate from the ancestors. From early on, I wanted to speak in dance of the beauty, the
Born November 29, 1919, in Trinidad; immigrated to U.S., 1921; daughter of Edward and Emily (Jackson) Primus; married Percival Borde, 1954; children: Onwin (son). Education: Hunter College, B.A., 1940; New York University (NYU), Ph.D., 1978.
Worked for National Youth Administration (NYA); won working scholarship from NYA’s New Dance Group, 1941; performed with their company, 1942; debuted with New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), 1943; appeared at YMHA as soloist, 1944; nightclub performer at New York’s Cafe Society Downtown; performed at Carnegie Hall and at first Negro Freedom Rally, Madison Square Garden; performed with her own troupe on Broadway; appeared in Show Boat and The Emperor Jones, 1946; toured with her company, 1946-47; opened dance school in New York City; studied dance in Africa, beginning 1948; began co-directing dance company and presenting works with Percival Borde, 1959; developed U.S. educational pilot study in African dance; dance pieces performed by Alvin Ailey company, 1974 and 1990; presented new and revived works in New York and elsewhere; taught ethnic studies at Five Colleges; adjunct professor of dance at NYU. Choreographed pieces include Strange Fruit, Hard Times Blues, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Shouters of Sobo, and tmpinyuza.
Selected awards: Rosenwald Foundation fellowship, 1948; Libertan Star of Africa, 1949; National Council of Negro Women’s Scroll of Honor; Association of American Anthropologists distinguished service award, Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Chair for Distinguished Teaching, National Medal of the Arts, and National Black Theatre Festival Living Legend Award, all 1991.
Addresses: Office —New York University Dance Education Program, 35 West 4th St., Rm. 675, New York, NY 10012.
strength and dignity in the heritage of peoples of African ancestry. But I also always felt strongly and still do that African dance is for everyone—the heritage of one people is the heritage of all.”
Pearl Primus was born in Trinidad on November 29, 1919, to Edward and Emily Jackson Primus. When she was two years old her family moved to New York City. Though talent in the arts ran in her family, Primus did not initially feel these influences. Her first choice of a career wasn’t dance at all. After attending Hunter High School, she graduated from Hunter College in 1940 with a B.A. in biology and pre-medical science with the intention of finding work as a medical researcher. But she was unable to get a job in a laboratory because no positions were open to blacks at that time. Eventually she went to the National Youth Administration (NYA) for help, and that organization hired her as an extra dancer for their segment of America Dances.
“She had had a little clog and folk dancing at Hunter High [School],” observed Lloyd in the Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. “But her feeling for movement had not been awakened. Suddenly she felt a change of heart. It happened overnight.” In 1941 Primus won a working scholarship from the NYA program’s New Dance Group, which sent her to study with modern dance masters like Martha Graham. “I was their only black student,” she recalled to Michael Robertson in the New York Times. A year later, after performing with the New Dance Group’s company, she decided to pursue a dance career.
During the 1940s Primus made inroads into the dance and entertainment world, formed her own company, and choreographed her own pieces. After giving a solo performance at the YMHA, she became a nightclub performer at New York’s Cafe Society Downtown and attracted an enthusiastic following. In keeping with her cultural and political interests, Primus also performed with African dancer Asadata Dafora at Carnegie Hall and at the first Negro Freedom Rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden. In 1944 she continued gaining recognition, appearing on Broadway at the Belasco Theater with her own dance troupe, as well as at the Roxy Theater. Two years later she danced in a revival of Show Boat and appeared as a witch doctor in a production of The Emperor Jones at the Chicago Civic Opera. In late 1946 through 1947 Primus toured with her own company, mostly in the South. She also performed in Massachusetts at the University of Dance at Jacob’s Pillow. Later, she opened her own dance school in New York.
The dances she created and performed, such as Strange Fruit, Hard Times Blues, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and Shouters of Sobo, presented themes of culture and social protest. The first three works are among her most famous. In Strange Fruit, Primus boldly played the role of a white woman at a lynching. Wrote Lloyd about the piece, “With no sound but the brush of her garment, the swish and thud of her bare feet and fists, the dancer hugs the earth, beating it, flinging herself upon it, groveling in it, twisting her sinuous body into fantastic shapes across it, now fleeing, now facing in timid fascination the invisible sacrificial tree which is the focus of the dance.” Of The Negro Speaks of Rivers —based on a poem by Langston Hughes—Lloyd wrote, “[It] is one of Pearl’s best…beautiful with undulating rhythms over deep-flowing currents of movement that wind into whirlpool spins.…The whole body sings.” Of her 1947 performance of Shouters of Sobo, danced to a Trinidadian chant, Time magazine commented, “With muscled shoulders hunched over bended knees, her powerful arms pounding, her whole body dynamically dramatic, everything about her was directed downward with terrible force.”
Primus’s interest in visiting Africa to study the continent’s dances and derive inspiration from them began in the 1940s and has continued throughout her life. In 1948 she was awarded a $4,000 fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation and used it to study dance in Africa. She toured Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Angola, Cameroon, Senegal, and Zaire, participating in court and social dances and observing native ritual. In 1949 in Liberia, where she later served as the first director of the African Performing Arts Center in Monrovia, President William V. S. Tubman presented her with the Order of the Star of Africa medal.
During 1953, while researching folklore in her native country of Trinidad, Primus met Percival Borde, whom she married a year later. (They had a son, Onwin, in 1955, who later became a dancer, musician, and stage manager for Primus’s projects.) Impressed by Borde’s raw talent, Primus invited him to her school in New York. He made his first professional appearance there in 1958, to glowing reviews, and the following year Primus’s dance troupe became known as Pearl Primus, Percival Borde, and Company. They also shared their artistic lives in the United States and Africa until Borde’s death in 1979, as well as the running of her school for a time. Both spent two years in Liberia as guests of the Liberian government and took another trip to that country in 1962 under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department and the Rebekah Harkness Foundation.
During the 1960s and 1970s Primus brought African dance to the United States, first to schoolchildren and later to other dance companies. In 1966 she developed “A Pilot Study in the Integration of Visual Form and Anthropological Content for Use in Teaching Children Ages Six to Eleven about Cultures and Peoples of the World,” with funds from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the U.S. Office of Education. The study brought African dance into several schools and served as part of her doctoral requirement for New York University’s School of Education, which she received in 1978. Later, she created a dance language institute under her name in New Rochelle, New York, where she and Borde lived.
Under the direction of Alvin Ailey in 1974, the Ailey company (later named the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) gave a premiere performance at New York’s City Center of a ritual and psychological dance Primus had created in the early 1960s after doing research in Zaire. The dance, now known as The Wedding, was favorably reviewed by Anna Kisselgoff in the New York Times, who wrote, “[This] is not a modern-dance stylization of an African ritual. It is the real thing. But it is the real thing as adapted and translated into theatrical terms. Miss Primus has understood this theatricality with the mastery of a first-class stage director.”
From the late 1970s through the 1990s Primus continued to present African and African American dances through performances in the United States, though later she herself appeared onstage only occasionally. Before his death, Primus and her husband collaborated on a concert of African, Caribbean, and Afro-American dances which they called Earth Theater and performed in theaters and churches in New York City. The pieces included a Liberian dance of welcome, a Nigerian fertility dance, a Haitian dance of sacrifice, and a suite about the black experience in America from the time of slavery to the civil rights era.
In 1988 the dances Strange Fruit, Hard Times Blues, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers were revived and performed at the American Dance Festival in a program called “The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance” at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In 1990, her piece Impinyuza was presented at the City Center in New York by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater under the direction of Judith Jamison. The dance, which premiered in the early 1950s, grew out of time Primus spent in the African republic of Rwanda with the Ishyaka (Watusi) dancers. Some reviewers of Impinyuza would have preferred a less ethnological representation. Other critics were impressed by the costumes and the intensity of the work. Julinda Lewis of Dance Magazine observed, “Drawing on the dance of the Ishyaka royal dancers of Rwanda, Primus has set the work on a dozen men, who are dressed in stunning red, white, and black cloth worn wrapped at the waist, beaded breastplates, ankle bells, and headdresses of long, silky animal hair.…Ever elegant and most intense in the execution of the simplest movement—as when all the men perform a low-placed turn at once—the dance is performed with reverence, not unlike the feeling Primus herself commands.”
The following year Primus worked on a project sponsored by the arts divisions of Howard and American universities, which culminated in a presentation of dances performed by students and professionals at Howard University and the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. They included revivals of The Negro Speaks of Rivers and The Wedding, as well as the new Dance to Save Lives, based on a war dance from Zaire.
For Primus it is essential that people learn about the cultural and universal roots of movement and teach it to new generations. To the Alvin Ailey dancers rehearsing Impinyuza, she reportedly said, “What I pass on to you is the spirit of the people. I do not want you to let this go.” Perhaps this more than anything else sums up Primus’s mission.
Lloyd, Margaret, Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, revised edition, Dance Horizons, 1969, pp. 265-76.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992, pp. 879-81.
Reference Library of Black America, edited by Henry A. Ploski, Bellwether Publishing Company, Inc., 1971, p. 79.
Dance Herald, Spring 1979, pp. 3-4.
Dance Magazine, November 1968, pp. 45-60; December 1990, pp. 62-64; May 1991, pp. 87-88.
Ebony, March 1959, pp. 46-50; November 1992, p. 131.
New York, January 7, 1991, pp. 55-56.
New York Post, March 27, 1969.
New York Times, March 6, 1966; April 14, 1968; April 17, 1974; March 18, 1979; March 24, 1979; August 17, 1979; August 21, 1979; March 25, 1981; June 19, 1988; August 11, 1989; December 15, 1990; June 6, 1991; July 9, 1991.
New York Times Biographical Service, March 1979, pp. 370-72; June 1988, pp. 721-22.
Time, August 25, 1947, pp. 42-44; May 21, 1951.
Vogue, August 1, 1943, p. 48.
Washington Post, November 29, 1992, section G. pp. 1, 10; December 7, 1992, section B. p. 2; December 11, 1992, section WW, p. 43.
Additional information for this profile was taken from an American Dance Festival press release, dated April 11, 1991, and a Kennedy Center press release, dated November 17, 1992.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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