Pearl Eileen Primus (29 November 1919 – 29 October 1994) was a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. Primus played an important role in the presentation of African dance to American audiences. She has been called “the grandmother of African-American dance.” 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 and education
Primus 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.
Aspiring to become a doctor, she applied for jobs as a laboratory technician to earn money for medical school, but was not able to land a job. She made a living through various odd jobs, including vegetable picker, welder, burner, riveter and health teacher, until the National Youth Administration (part of the Works Progress Administration) gave her a job in the wardrobe department in 1941, working backstage for “America Dances.” Once a spot opened up for a dancer, Primus filled in, and quickly discovered a natural gift for movement and connecting with the audience.
After the NYA program folded, she auditioned for and received a scholarship at the New Dance Group (becoming their first African-American student), where her “qualities of spontaneity, speed and power were instantly recognized,” wrote Margaret Lloyd, author of The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. The faculty, which included Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Nona Schurman and William Bales, greatly influenced Primus with their commitment to using dance as a tool for social reform. Primus also trained with Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Louis Horst, from whom she gained an eclectic foundation in modern dance. She later studied ballet and was soon dancing with the NDG performance company.
In 1942, the 92nd Street Y initiated a concert series to showcase the work of young dancers, in which Primus made her theatrical debut on February 14, 1943. She performed her own African Ceremonial, Hard-Time Blues, Rock Daniel and Strange Fruit, works inspired by her dance training, ethnic background and cultural research, as well as influential black songwriters and poets like Langston Hughes. This prompted The New York Times dance critic John Martin to rave that “if Miss Primus walked away with the lion’s share of the honors, it was partly because her material was more theatrically effective, but also because she is a remarkably gifted artist.” He later proclaimed her to be “the most distinguished newcomer of the season.”
Such praise, though, caused Primus to doubt her long-term goal of becoming a medical doctor. She turned to Martin for advice, and he encouraged her to look at dancing as a “wonderful healing medium” as well. From then on, Primus focused more exclusively on dance, but continued her studies, taking graduate-level courses.
In April 1943, she began an engagement at the Café Society Downtown, a racially integrated nightclub whose small stage she filled with power, emotion and her famous five-foot-high jumps. During this time, she also performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, and her new dance group, the Primus Company, performed at the Belasco and Roxy Theatres. She danced in the Los Angeles production of Showboat in 1944 and the Broadway revival two years later, followed by the Chicago Civic Opera’s production of The Emperor Jones, which she choreographed, and Broadway’s 1947 Caribbean Carnival.
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. 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.
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.
Honours and awards
In 1991, President George 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.
Primus died from diabetes at her home in New Rochelle, New York on 29 October 1994. She was survived by a son, Onwin Borde who died on 21 May 2006.
"The Dance Claimed Me: A
Biography of Pearl Primus," by Peggy and Murray Schwartz. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011.
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