Black News and News Makers in History: Pearl Primus

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History - Pearl Primus, grandmother of African American dance recognized this week in Black historyPearl Primus, Ph.D., known at the "grandmother of African American dance."  She founded her own dance company and based many dances and, as 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 throughout the world 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.

Pearl Primus, born November 29, 1919 in Trinidad, was raised in New York City. After graduating from Hunter College there in 1940 with a biology degree, she received a scholarship to study at the New School for Social Research in New York.  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.

In 1943, she made her professional debut in New York, performing her own "African Ceremonial." She then began performing at the Café Society Downtown, an integrated night club.

In 1944, she gave her first solo recital, performing to poetry and the music of folk singer, Josh White. That show met with such success that it moved to Broadway.

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 1946, she appeared in a New York revival of "Showboat," as well as in Louis Gruenberg's opera, "The Emperor Jones" at the Chicago Civic Opera.

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History - Pearl Primus - grandmother of African American dance recognized this week in Black historyAlso, in 1946, she founded her own dance company. Known for her primitive dance and physical agility, dance critics praised her movements as forceful and dramatic, yet graceful and deliberately controlled. During this time, she often based her dances on the work of black writers and on racial issues.  She was famed for her leaps five feet in the air.

In 1949, she 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.

In 1954, she married the dancer and choreographer, Percival Borde, and began a collaboration that ended only with his death in 1979.

In 1959, the year she 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, she received a Ph.D. in Dance Education from New York University.

In 1979, she created "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore," about the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.

From 1984 to 1990, she served as a professor of ethnic studies, and artist in residence at the Five Colleges consortium in Massachusetts.

In 1990, she became the first chair of the Five Colleges Dance Consortium. 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.

In 1991, President George Bush honored Pearl Primus with the National Medal of Arts.

She died October 29, 1994.

Compiled from an article by Elizabeth V. Foley at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/primus.html and http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/cvvpw/gallery/primus1.html.