Primus, Pearl (1919–1994)

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Primus, Pearl (1919–1994)

African-American dancer and choreographer whose anthropological work unearthed the richness of African and Caribbean dance and unmasked the realities of black life to America. Pronunciation: PREE-mus. Born Pearl Primus on November 29, 1919, in Trinidad, British West Indies; died at her home in New Rochelle, New York, on October 29, 1994; daughter of Edward Primus and Emily Primus; Hunter College, B.A., 1940; received a Rosenwald Foundation grant for travel to Africa, 1948; New York University, Ph.D. in Educational Sociology and Anthropology, 1977; married Percival Borde, in 1954; children: son Onwin Babajide Primus Borde (b. 1955).

Moved with family to U.S. (1921); awarded the "Star of Africa" by Dr. William V.S. Tubman, president of the Republic of Liberia (1949); established Liberian Cultural Center in Monrovia (1959); received Alvin Ailey Dance Pioneer Award (1978); was first recipient of the American Dance Festival Balasaraswant-Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Chair for Distinguished Teaching (1991); received National Medal of Arts (1991).

Selected works choreographed:

"Strange Fruit" (1943); "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1943); "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (1945); "Hard Times Blues" (1943); "Dark Rhythms" (1946); "Invocation" (1949); "Fanga" (1949); "The Initiation" (1950); "Impinyuza" (1951); "Mr. Johnson" (1955); "Earth Magician" (1958); "The Wedding" (1961); "Fertility Dance" (1967); "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore" (1979).

At a gala performance held in 1978, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater paid tribute to pioneers in American dance, one of those honored was Pearl Primus—dancer, choreographer, and ethnographer—whose work of almost four decades not only expanded the opportunities for African-Americans in the dance world, but opened up pathways to the origins of African dance movements that have helped to unify the African-American identity through dance.

In response to the award, the 59-year-old Primus thrilled the audience that night by expressing her thanks through dance, displaying her choreography and her talent to the accompaniment of drums. Not lost on the audience was the significance of the ceremony itself, indicating just how much change had taken place. An internationally heralded dance company, founded by and predominantly composed of African-Americans, was celebrating its 20th anniversary by honoring those performers of an earlier generation for whom consistent dance work had been barely attainable. On the first occasion of these awards, Primus joined Katherine Dunham and Beryl McBurnie in accepting their places in the ancestry of the African-American concert dance tradition.

The inscription on Primus' award paid tribute to her for "a life dedicated to the artistic expression of black dance … infusing dance throughout the world with the rhythmic beat and dramatic movement of a culture as old as time itself." The very phrase used to honor her—"black dance," in itself a culturally loaded term—encapsulates much of the history of racism and stereo-typing afflicting African-Americans as they sought a place in a dance world that was for a long time almost exclusively white. Ironically, but also fortuitously, it was just such a stereotype that became the seed of Pearl Primus' career.

Born in Trinidad, British West Indies, in 1919, the daughter of Edward and Emily Primus , Pearl moved with her family to the United States when she was two. Emily's father was a leader of the Ashanti religion in Trinidad, and Primus later reflected that his interest and involvement in African and Caribbean cultures presaged her own. In childhood, however, her parents did not guide her towards the arts. Edward Primus held various jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, ranging from building superintendent to war plant employee, seafarer, and carpenter. In high school, Primus competed in track and field, and she continued to be involved in sprinting and jumping at Hunter College in New York City, where she earned a B.A. in biology in 1940.

In preparation for entering medical school at the all-black Howard University, Primus sought work as a laboratory technician to earn money, but racist hiring practices kept her from finding a job. She wound up in the wardrobe department of the National Youth Administration and was working backstage on an "America Dances" production one night when a dancer failed to show. Because she knew the latest swing steps, she was asked to fill in.

After this inadvertent beginning, Primus continued to dance with the group for a short time, until its demise. Then she heard about a working scholarship being offered by the New Dance Group. With her athletic background but no formal technique, she won the audition, mainly by executing the awesome flying jumps which were to become the trademark of her early career. Six months after Primus started classes, she was appearing with the company on-stage. On February 14, 1943, she was one of four solo dancers performing at the 92nd Street YMHA when she was catapulted into the forefront of the concert dance scene by a review written by John Martin. The influential dance critic of The New York Times declared that the choice of who the best newcomer of the season was "as easy as rolling off a log…. The decision goes hands down to Pearl Primus."

Praise for Primus' dancing abounded. Other reviewers, primarily from the white press, focused on her enthusiasm and energy, characterized by the high, airborne leaps. Audiences delighted in her diverse programs, consisting of everything from modern and African dance to live drumming and jazz dance. But the praise was generally imbued with racial—and racist—assumptions, defining Primus both by her race and despite it, as in the way Martin explained his choice of her as the year's star:

There is no doubt that she is quite the most gifted artist-dancer of her race (she is Negro) yet to appear in the field. The roots of her real quality lie in her apparent awareness of her racial heritage at its richest and truest, but it would be manifestly unfair to classify her merely as an outstanding Negro dancer, for by any standard of comparison she is an outstanding dancer without regard for race.

Thus classified, Primus was seen according to the common perception of movements which African-Americans were assumed to be "naturally" capable of, while at the same time her ability forced many critics to express how she transcended these narrow definitions. Before Primus began to dance, it was the generally accepted view in a white concert dance world that African-Americans, because of the structure of their bodies, could not master ballet, though they were accepted as excelling at swing dancing, tap, and vaudeville dancing. Clearly, Primus went far beyond these categories.

Clearly, also, her incredibly quick breakthrough surely contributed to the belief that she had "natural" ability. In fact, she probably did. Her athletic background in high school and college gave her some preparation for jumps in dancing. There the skills she was enabled to learn were based on assumptions about "innate" explosive energy to be found in African-Americans, which had led to their being channeled during the 1930s and 1940s into sprinting and jumping to the exclusion of other sports. In the arts, African-American women were confined to performing in certain kinds of dance shows—minstrelsy, vaudeville, motion pictures, and Broadway. Primus was to be one of the first successful crossovers to the concert dance stage. And while modern dance allowed her the freedom to include a variety of dance styles in her programs, she did not ignore the entertainment tradition of African-American dancing. In the first years of her career, she saw the concert dance performance as a means to legitimize the talent and creativity on display every night in the uptown Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. With programs combining popular dancing and highly emotive abstract choreography, she opened up the types of dancing whites were accustomed to seeing African-Americans perform.

Dance … is the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustrations common to all human beings who, because of race, creed or color, are "invisible."

—Pearl Primus

In April 1943, within two months of the review that launched her career, Primus found a new creative home at Café Society Downtown, a politically active club in downtown Manhattan with leftist leanings and an integrated audience. On a small stage, cramped overhead by a low ceiling, she performed her variety of dances, often to the blues accompaniment of Josh White. A ten-day trial turned into a ten-month engagement. While in an atmosphere where white liberals expressed their sympathy for the plight of blacks, Café Society also provided 24-year-old Primus with an entry into and support from the small community of African-American singers and entertainers, including Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday , and Paul Robeson.

At Café Society, Primus joined Robeson and many other African-American performers in being part of the black political movement to end America's racial discrimination. During World War II, the Negro Freedom Rallies, primarily sponsored by the Negro Labor Victory Committee, promoted the fulfillment of democracy at home as well as around the world in what they called a "double victory." In particular, African-Americans wanted an end to the Jim Crow laws that greatly restricted their freedom and prevented full participation in American democracy. To this end, Owen Dodson and Langston Hughes wrote and directed a pageant entitled "New World A-Coming" performed in June 1944 at Madison Square Garden, in which Primus appeared. Speeches mingled with entertainment, all for the cost of ten cents. Remembering the unity of purpose, Primus told an interviewer for Dance Magazine: "Paul [Robeson] would sing, I would dance, Adam [Clayton Powell, Jr.] would deliver the political statement, the social statement—what it was really about."

Primus found jobs dancing on Broadway and in nightclubs. With the same idealism that had first attracted her to the medical profession for its opportunities to help people, she continued to dance because of her growing belief in the curative possibilities and social ramifications of the art. The bulk of the repertory that she developed dealt with the social status of African-Americans. Her dance "Strange Fruit" (1943), based on a poem by Lewis Allen, portrayed a white woman's grief and terror after participating in a lynching mob. A Langston Hughes poem inspired "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1943) about the heritage of slave labor from the pyramids to America, a theme Primus took up again in "Slave Market" (1944). "Hard Time Blues" (1943), to music by Josh White, depicted the anger and frustration of the black sharecropper.

As her dedication to dances of social protest increased, so did Primus' desire for a fuller understanding of the contemporary experience of African-Americans. Worried that her choreography might lack authenticity because she had not personally experienced sharecropping, lynching, or the evocations of Negro spirituals, she traveled to Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina in the summer of 1944. Posing as a migrant worker, she picked cotton and visited rural black churches, where she began to recognize the integral role of spirituality in African-American culture. As she told an Ebony reporter in 1951, "[I need] to know my own people where they are suffering most."

In the rural Southern black churches, Primus also began to identify the rhythmic and physical patterns of African-American worship. Writing about the experience a few years later in The Dance Encyclopedia, she noted: "I discovered in the Baptist Churches the voice of the drum—not in any instrument, but in the throat of the preacher. I found the dramatic sweep of movement through space … in the motions of minister and congregation alike." Watching the violent trembling, mutterings, and stamping of a person in religious ecstasy, she wrote, "is to experience dance in its most primitive and moving form."

Still attending school as well, Primus shifted from courses in medicine to classes in psychology and eventually in anthropology. The exhilaration she had known through immersion in Southern black spirituality heightened her desire to keep searching for the source of this common strand in the African-American experience. As ethnographer and artist, she also felt lured toward Africa, with its possibilities of timeless connection that could offer new definitions for herself and all African-Americans.

Absorbing what information about Africa she could, Primus had begun recreating African dances from books. In April 1948, following a performance at Fisk University, she was approached by a member of the audience, Dr. Edward Embrie of the Rosenwald Foundation, offering her a trip to Africa. Armed with DDT and a gun, Primus was soon headed for the Gold Coast, Angola, Liberia, Senegal, and the Belgian Congo, as one of the last recipients of a Rosen-wald Foundation grant.

In Africa, Primus found the cultures of the cities distorted by commercial influences and the jitterbug dance imported from America. Journeying to the more remote areas of each country, she lived, worked and danced with various tribes, witnessing and experiencing dance as an inextricable part of life. In an article for The Dance Has Many Faces, she wrote: "Africans used their bodies as instruments through which every conceivable emotion or event was projected. The result was a strange but hypnotic marriage between life and dance." Even the African way of teaching movement reflected the deeply held belief in the integrity and communicative power of the body. If Primus could not pick up every nuance of movement through watching and imitating, "a native dancer would hold [Primus'] body against his or her own so she could literally absorb the movement." Mind, body, and soul were finally united.

Reveling in the spiritual intensity which she found pervasive in African dance and life, Primus considered this the greatest bond between Africans and African-Americans. In a letter from Kahnplay, Liberia, printed in Dance Observer in 1949, Primus described the linkage with the black world she knew. If the preacher

was the voice of the drum in Southern Baptist churches, in Africa:

the earth is the voice of the dancer. The dancer is the conductor, the wire, which connects the earth and the sky…. I have been amazed and overjoyed, for when the spirit entered me the reason for the dance became my reason to move. I danced as I have never danced on the stages of America. Myself was transformed.

The focus gained during this first trip to Africa defined virtually all of Primus' work thereafter. Her performances became more like lecture-demonstrations in which she would explain the significance of certain rituals before dancing them. A major part of her transformation was to expose her audiences to the myths that often underlay a dance. Noting that African dancing was not "primitive" but basic, she declared that she would never use the term "primitive" in that way again. Similarly, she made an effort to describe the jungle as a richly musical and peaceful place instead of dangerous and frightening. In Africa, she said, she had soon left behind the unneeded DDT and switched from her gun to a more useful knife.

In the 1950s, Primus promoted African dance in both America and Africa, returning to Africa often while she continued to work toward a doctorate at New York University. In 1954, she also married Percival Borde, a Trinidadian dancer, and a year later had a son. Both Borde and her son accompanied her to Africa in the late 1950s to oversee the establishment of an African Performing Arts Center in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Appointed director of the center by President William Tubman in 1959, and subsidized by government funds, Primus planned to salvage the country's tribal dances still extant in an effort to retard the demolitionary effects of civilization. Believing in the beauty and dignity of the dances, she explained in Dance Magazine: "The main thing for me will be to find, encourage and train the folk artist and provide him with outlets through actual theatrical experience—to make of him a performing artist."

When funding for the Liberian project fell through in 1962, Primus returned to the United States and the burgeoning civil rights movement. Important changes were by then underway in the American dance world, where Arthur Mitchell, an African-American, was a prominent dancer for the New York City Ballet, and dancer and choreographer Eleo Pomare was gaining stature as an outspoken social critic. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, begun in 1958, remained the only predominantly black company with national and international recognition. Primus and Borde set up another school, the African-Caribbean-American Institute of Dance, in New York and continued to perform as well as teach in area high schools and colleges. "The Wedding" (1961), commissioned by the African Research Foundation, premiered at the first African Carnival in New York City in December 1961; at least one performance, in December 1963, benefited the civil rights movement with proceeds given to the Church Freedom Fund for Civil Rights. Meanwhile, Lisette Model spent months shooting Primus' dance company, but could not get the photos published in Harper's Bazaar, "because Hearst wouldn't allow photographs of Negroes in his magazine," said Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch.

In 1977, Primus finally obtained her doctorate in Educational Sociology and Anthropology from New York University. She held various college positions, including professor of ethnic studies at Amherst College in the 1980s, usually teaching classes in both anthropology and dance. She also continued to restage her works for various performance groups, most notably the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Through the works of Primus, many African-American dancers recognized the important role dance could have in reshaping African-American identity. As dancer, anthropologist, and educator, she marked a path in finding and defining that identity by calling attention to the one simple unity amid the diverse experiences of African-Americans; Africa provided a cohesive origin. Looking at dance as a lens of society, she focused on how bodies in motion projected and preserved beliefs and values. In addressing the possible links between all African-Americans and then between Africans and African-Americans, she both anticipated and addressed the urgency to define a black aesthetic that prevailed during the 1960s in the Black Arts movement, earning her a permanent place in America's history of dance.


Barber, Beverly Anne Hillsman. "Pearl Primus, In Search of Her Roots: 1943–1970," unpublished dissertation, Florida State University, 1984.

Bosworth, Patricia. Diane Arbus. NY: W.W. Norton, 1994.

Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance from 1619 to Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1988.

Lloyd, Margaret. Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. NY: Knopf, 1949.

Martin, John. John Martin's Book of the Dance. NY: Tudor, 1963.

Myers, Gerald, ed. The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance. NC: American Dance Festival, 1988.

suggested reading:

Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African American Culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.

Thompson, Richard Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. NY: Vintage, 1983.

related media:

"Dance Black America" (90 min.) video of the Dance Black America Festival, April 21–24, 1983, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (containing historical film footage interspersed with interviews backstage and live performances), produced by the State University of New York and Pennebaker Associates, 1984.


Photographs, clippings, and programs at the Dance Collection of the Performing Arts Research Center of New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, New York City; and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City.

Julia L. L. , Rockefeller Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago, Illinois

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Primus, Pearl (1919–1994)

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