BORN: November 29, 1919 - DIED: October 29, 1994
Pearl Primus was an African-American dancer and choreographer whose anthropological work unearthed the richness of African and Caribbean dance and unmasked the realities of black life to America. She was born in Trinidad, British West Indies and moved to the U.S. in 1921. Pearl later died at her home in New Rochelle, NY in 1994 after establishing herself as a world known acclaimed dancer, choreographer, ethnographer and anthropologist. She was the recipient of many distinguished awards over her career.
While starting out as a track and field star in high school, sprinter and jumper in college, little did she know that it would lead to an amazing career in dance. She really got her start of dance late in life after working backstage on an "America Dance" production. As fate would have it, one night when a dancer failed to show, and because she knew the latest swing steps, she was asked to fill in. After this inadvertent beginning, Primus continued to dance with the group for a short time, until its demise. Then she heard about a working scholarship being offered by the New Dance Group. With her athletic background but no formal technique, she won the audition, mainly by executing the awesome flying jumps which were to become the trademark of her early career. Six months after Primus started classes, she was appearing with the company on-stage. On February 14, 1943, she was one of four solo dancers performing at the 92nd Street YMHA when she was catapulted into the forefront of the concert dance scene by a review written by John Martin. The influential dance critic of The New York Times declared that the choice of who the best newcomer of the season was "as easy as rolling off a log…. The decision goes hands down to Pearl Primus."
Education was instilled in her at an early age, and no matter what, she continued to pursue her studies which lead to her B.A. from Hunter College in 1940; received a Rosenwald Foundation grant for travel to Africa, 1948, and New York University, Ph.D. in Educational Sociology and Anthropology, 1977. At a gala performance held in 1978, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater paid tribute to pioneers in American dance, Pearl Primus was honored with the Alvin Ailey Dance Pioneer Award. Her work of almost four decades not only expanded the opportunities for African-Americans in the dance world, but opened up pathways to the origins of African dance movements that have helped to unify the African-American identity through dance. On the first occasion of these awards, Primus joined Katherine Dunham and Beryl McBurnie in accepting their places in the ancestry of the African-American concert dance tradition. Her award paid tribute to her for "a life dedicated to the artistic expression of black dance … infusing dance throughout the world with the rhythmic beat and dramatic movement of a culture as old as time itself." The very phrase used to honor her—"black dance," in itself a culturally loaded term—encapsulates much of the history of racism and stereo-typing afflicting African-Americans as they sought a place in a dance world that was for a long time almost exclusively white. Ironically, but also fortuitously, it was just such a stereotype that became the seed of Pearl Primus' career.
Praise for Primus' dancing abounded. Other reviewers, primarily from the white press, focused on her enthusiasm and energy, characterized by the high, airborne leaps. Audiences delighted in her diverse programs, consisting of everything from modern and African dance to live drumming and jazz dance. But the praise was generally imbued with racial—and racist—assumptions, defining Primus both by her race and despite it, as in the way Martin explained his choice of her as the year's star. Before Primus began to dance, it was the generally accepted view in a white concert dance world that African-Americans, because of the structure of their bodies, could not master ballet, though they were accepted as excelling at swing dancing, tap, and vaudeville dancing. Clearly, Primus went far beyond these categories. Reporters would then write "There is no doubt that she is quite the most gifted artist-dancer of her race (she is Negro) yet to appear in the field. The roots of her real quality lie in her apparent awareness of her racial heritage at its richest and truest, but it would be manifestly unfair to classify her merely as an outstanding Negro dancer, for by any standard of comparison she is an outstanding dancer without regard for race."
Please watch the video Choreographed by Ms. Pearl Primus :