Performer and scholar Pearl Primus has been called “the grandmother of African-American dance.” An innovative dancer and choreographer, her work is characterized by speed, intense rhythms, high jumps, and graceful leaps. A Ph.D. in anthropology and sociology, Primus studied African and African-American culture and incorporated her considerable knowledge into her dance programs. Throughout her career, Primus married the art of dance to social commentary, historical study and interpretation, and community action.
Born in Trinidad and raised in New York City, Primus developed a serious interest in dance only after she had graduated from Hunter College with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Unable to find work in her field because few scientific jobs were available to African Americans, Primus began studying with the National Youth Administration’s New Dance Group. She took to dance immediately.
Primus began performing in public with dance groups and in solo appearances at New York’s Café Society Downtown. In an early show, Primus’s performance was so compelling, she “literally stopped the show.”1 She formed her own company and choreographed both group and solo pieces. Primus developed dances that incorporated elements of social protest, such as “Strange Fruit” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” These dramatic and moving pieces affected audiences profoundly. John Martin described a 1945 performance: “Miss Primus is always engrossing to watch, for she moves superbly and with a great inward strength.”2
A 1948 Rosenwald grant allowed Primus to visit Africa to study African dance. She traveled throughout the continent, learning traditional dances and rituals; her work was deeply influenced by her experiences in Nigeria, Zaire, Rwanda, and Ghana. Returning to the United States, Primus introduced American audiences to African dance. “Everything I do is consistent with what I saw in Africa,” Primus said, “except for wearing a bra. I have to make that concession to modern standards.”3
Primus also introduced many American dancers to African dance traditions. Primus ran her own dance schools for children and adults, and she taught dance, dance education, and ethnic studies at New York University, the Five College Consortium in Amherst, Massachusetts, and other colleges and universities.
Carl Van Vechten aptly described Pearl Primus as a dancer who had “developed a fine style all of her own, moving expertly, with great precision to Negro folk tunes, and who later became adept in authentic African gyrations.”4 But his statement fails to acknowledge the depth of Primus’s contributions as choreographer, activist, and educator.