Pearl Primus, Rock Daniel, 1944, Barbara Morgan Archives
African American, Dance, Ethnography, Theater
Pearl Eileen Primus
Dr. Pearl Primus was a dancer, choreographer, educator, and anthropologist whose pioneering work not only explored and celebrated African, Caribbean, and African American dance forms and folkways, but also called attention to social issues faced by people of African descent.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1919, Primus migrated to New York with her family at the age of two. She studied biology and Pre-Med or pre-med at Hunter College in New York, but was unable to find work because of the limited opportunities available to Black people. Primus began dancing in 1943, after finding work with the dance unit of the National Youth Administration (NYA). She received a scholarship to study modern dance with the New Dance Group (NDG), a New York-based dance company dedicated to exploring social and economic issues through dance. According to Primus, the NDG was the place where “the dance claimed me.”
Primus was a student of Asodata Dafora, a Sierra Leonean dancer and choreographer who had migrated to New York in 1929 and was instrumental in bringing African dance to the United States. In 1948, Primus was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship to travel to Africa to study dance. This was the first of many research trips to Africa, the Caribbean, and the American south where she documented dance and other traditions. She led dance lectures and demonstrations at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, among other venues, where she introduced audiences as well as generations of students to the dances of Africa and her diaspora.
Primus was director of the Konoma Kende Performing Arts Centre in Liberia (1959-61), and founded both the African-Caribbean-American Institute of Dance (1963) and the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute (1978) in New York. She earned an MA in education (1959) and a PhD in anthropology (1978) from New York University, and served as professor of ethnic studies at the University of Massachusetts (1984–90). Among her many honors include the National Medal of Arts (1991).
Her better-known dance works include “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” based on the Langston Hughes poem, “Strange Fruit,” set to the poem by Abel Meeropol, and “Fanga,” a Liberian dance of welcome, which she developed with the National Dance Company of Liberia and staged with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. With the exception of a few fragments from one of her journals housed in the American Dance Festival archives, Dr. Primus’ field notes and other writings from her research trips have mostly been lost.
The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus