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Pearl Eileen Primus (November 29, 1919 – October 29, 1994) was an American dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. Primus played an important role in the presentation of African 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.[1]

Pearl Primus
Pearl Primus.jpg
Primus performing The Negro Speaks of Rivers in 1944
Born(1919-11-29)November 29, 1919
DiedOctober 29, 1994(1994-10-29) (aged 74)
New Rochelle, New York, United States
EducationHunter College
New York University
OccupationChoreographer, dancer, anthropologist
Spouse(s)Percival Borde
Former groupsNew Dance Group


Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Pearl Primus was five years old when she moved with her parents, Edward Primus and Emily Jackson, to New York City in 1921.[2][3] In 1940, Primus entered Hunter College[4] as a graduate student in biology, and, while looking for work, joined the National Youth Administration group as an understudy, thus beginning her first theatrical experience. She quickly improved in her abilities and, within a year, won a scholarship from the New Dance Group, a left-wing school and performance company located on the Lower East Side of New York City.[5]


Primus began to research African dance by consulting books, articles, pictures, and museums.[6] 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."[7]

Her next performances began in April 1943, as an entertainer at the famous night club, Cafe Society Downtown, for 10 months.

In June 1943, Primus performed at the Negro Freedom Rally at Madison Square Garden before an audience of 20,000 people.

Primus choreographed "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes (here, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1936)

Primus also choreographed a work to Langston Hughes's famous poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", which was performed at her Broadway debut on October 4, 1944, at the Bealson Theatre.

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.

Primus studied under Martha Graham (here, photographed by Yousuf Karsh in 1948)

Primus studied dance with Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Ismay Andrews, and Asadata Dafora.[8] Dafora's influence on Primus has been largely ignored by historians and unmentioned by Primus.[9] However, Marcia Ethel Heard notes that he instilled a sense of African pride in his students and asserts that he taught Primus about African dance and culture.[9] Dafora began a movement of African cultural pride which provided Primus with collaborators and piqued public interest in her work.[10] In December 1943, Primus appeared as in Dafora's African Dance Festival at Carnegie Hall before Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune.[11]

In December 1943, 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 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.

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.

Charles S. Johnson funded research into dance in Africa by Primus

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 18-month research and study tour of the Gold Coast, Angola, Cameroons, Liberia, Senegal and the Belgian Congo.[citation needed] On December 5, 1948, dancer Pearl Primus closed a successful return engagement at the Café Society nightclub in New York City before heading off to Africa.[12]

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.[13] Pearl also based her dance off of American and Indian/African lives.

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".[14]

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.[15] 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.


Pioneer of African dance in the United StatesEdit

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."[16] She has been unselfish in sharing the knowledge she has gained with others.[1]

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.[13][17]

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.[18]

Choreography approach and styleEdit

Primus' approach to developing a movement language and to creating dance works parallels that of Graham, Holm, Weidman, Agnes 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' choreographic 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.

Personal life and deathEdit

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.[19]

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.[1]

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.

Primus died from diabetes at her home in New Rochelle, New York on October 29, 1994.[20]


In 1991, President George H. W. Bush honored Primus with the National Medal of Arts.[21] 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.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Myers, Gerald E. (1993). African American Genius in Modern Dance. Durham, N.C.: American Dance Festival.
  2. ^ Gloria Grant Roberson, "Primus, Pearl Eileen", The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives.
  3. ^ "Pearl Primus", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  4. ^ "Alumni". Flickr. Retrieved 2018-07-31.
  5. ^ Green, Richard C. (2002). "(Up)Staging the Primitive: Pearl Primus and 'the Negro Problem' in American Dance". In DeFrantz, Thomas F. (ed.). Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0299173143.
  6. ^ Lloyd 1949, p. 269.
  7. ^ Martin, John (1943). "The Dance: Five Artists". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Heard 1999, p. 181.
  9. ^ a b Heard 1999, p. 181–184.
  10. ^ Heard 1999, p. 184–187.
  11. ^ Heard 1999, p. 183–187.
  12. ^ "The Dance: Chitchat". New York Times. December 5, 1948. p. X10.
  13. ^ a b Creque Harris, Leah (1991). The Representation of African Dance on the Stage: From the early black musical to Pearl Primus. Atlanta, GA: Emory University.
  14. ^ Primus, Pearl (1950). Earth Theatre. Theater Arts.
  15. ^ "Dance As A Language", Dance: A Tribute to Pearl E. Primus.
  16. ^ Primus, from the Schomburg Library: Primus File, 1949
  17. ^ Hering, Doris (1950). "Little Fast Feet: The Story of the Pilgrimage of Pearl Primus to Africa". Dance Magazine.
  18. ^ Martin, John (July 31, 1966). The New York Times.
  19. ^ McPherson, Elizabeth. "Pearl Primus". Dance Teacher Magazine.
  20. ^ Dunning, Jennifer (October 31, 1994). "Obituary - Pearl Primus". The New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2012.
  21. ^ Dunning, Jennifer. "Pearl Primus Is Dead at 74; A Pioneer of Modern Dance". Retrieved 2018-07-31.


  • Heard, Marcia Ethel (1999). Asadata Dafora: African Concert Dance Traditions in American Concert Dance (Ph.D.). New York University, School of Education. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  • Schwartz, Peggy and Murray (2012). 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.

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