Reference Entry

Primus, Pearl

Robert W. Logan

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775
Primus, Pearl

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Pearl Primus set out to be a doctor and became a dancer. In her lifelong study of dance she also became a choreographer, an anthropologist, an educator, and a cultural ambassador. And in her hands dance became a language, a medium of social comment, a channel for anger and frustration, a teaching tool, and an instrument of healing.Primus was born in Trinidad to Edward and Emily (Jackson) Primus. In 1921 the family moved to New York, where she attended Hunter College High School and graduated from Hunter College in 1940 with a major in biology and premedical sciences. At that time there were no jobs available to blacks in New York's laboratories, so she turned to the National Youth Administration (NYA) for help finding work while she began her graduate studies at night., shown here in a dance pose. In addition to her work as a dancer, she was a choreographer, an anthropologist, an educator, and a cultural ambassador. Scurlock Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian InstitutionThe NYA, unable to find the kind of job Primus was looking for, sent her into one of its dance groups as an understudy. Her progress was so rapid that, in the summer of 1941, she auditioned for and won a scholarship to study with New York's New Dance group. There she studied classical and preclassical dance forms with some of the most influential dancers of the time, including Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Beryl McBurnie. At the same time Primus began researching African dances, visiting museums and consulting published sources, leading up to her first composition, African Ceremonial.On 14 February 1943, in her first professional appearance, Primus presented African Ceremonial and three other dances, including an interpretation of Abel Meeropol's antilynching song “Strange Fruit.” The response, including a rave review in the New York Times, was so encouraging that she decided to embark upon a career in dance. After a ten-month engagement as an entertainer at Café Society Downtown, Primus presented her first solo concert performance, in April 1944 at the Young Men's Hebrew Association.Primus spent two months of the summer of 1944 in Georgia picking cotton with sharecroppers and attending black churches. She also studied African traditions brought over by slaves and how those traditions evolved in the United States. By the time of her Broadway debut at the Belasco Theater, in October of that year, Primus had developed a set of original works concentrating on her lifelong interests in the lives of black people and in the culture and traditions of Africa.At the Belasco, Primus appeared for ten days with a troupe that included four male dancers, two drummers, two singers, a five-piece jazz band, a narrator, and folk singer Josh White. The concert included dances of African and Haitian origin, as well as “Slave Market,” which portrayed the slave custom of using spirituals to send messages about the Underground Railroad. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” set to the poem by Langston Hughes; the jazz number “Rock Daniel”; “Strange Fruit”; and a setting of Josh White's song “Hard Times Blues” were also on the program. In December, Primus began a month-long engagement at the Roxy (movie) Theatre, performing an expanded version of African Ceremonial with an ensemble of fourteen dancers.In 1945 Primus performed concerts in several American cities. For the first ten months of 1946, she appeared as a featured dancer in the second revival of the Broadway musical Show Boat, and from November 1946 to February 1947 she toured with her own company.In 1948 Primus was granted a fellowship from the Rosenwald fund, which enabled her to travel through Africa, living with the peoples of Liberia, Senegal, Ghana, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Zaire, Angola, and the Congo, among others. In Nigeria she was renamed “Omowale,” which means “child returned home.” In Liberia she was awarded the Order of the Star of Africa medal by then-president William V. S. Tubman. Everywhere she went in Africa, Primus performed her own dances and observed, studied, and took part in the local native dances. After returning from Africa, Primus wrote and lectured about African dance and began to perform new works informed by her firsthand experience of African dance.In 1953 in Trinidad, researching West Indian folklore, Primus met Percival Borde, whom she married the following year. Their son, Onwin Borde, born in 1955, grew up to become a master drummer who accompanied and stage-managed some of his mother's later programs. Percival Borde, a distinguished dancer in his own right, made his stage debut in 1958. A few years later Primus and Borde founded the Primus-Borde Dance Studio in New York, where they taught many members of the next generation of African-influenced dancers, until Borde's death in 1979.In 1959 Primus and Borde moved to Liberia for two years, where Primus performed, taught, studied, and served as the director of Liberia's Performing Arts Center. They returned to New York for a year before setting off on a tour of Africa, sponsored by the Rebekah Harkness Foundation and the U.S. State Department.During the 1960s and 1970s, education became an increasingly important part of Primus's work. In 1966 her study “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” resulted in dance classes being introduced into several New York public schools. In 1978 she earned her doctorate in anthropology from New York University.In addition to teaching dance and choreography at the studio that became the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute in 1979, Pearl Primus taught anthropology, anatomy, and ethnic dance at major colleges and universities. She served as a consultant to museums and published articles and lectured throughout most of the world. She received awards and honors from a host of universities, organizations, and governments, including the Medal of Art, presented to her by President George H. W. Bush in 1991.Primus died at her home in New Rochelle, New York, in 1994.See also Dancers and Choreographers, Modern.

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