Dance was far from the mind of Pearl Eileen Primus but as fate would have it, it became the medium through which she influenced many people and became celebrated.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Albertha Emily Jackson and Onwin Edward Primus, Peral and her family relocated to Manhattan and then Brooklyn.
She attended Hunter College High School, before earning a BA in biology and premed from Hunter College in 1940. In hopes of becoming a doctor, she applied for jobs as a laboratory technician to earn money for medical school, but was turned down.
Realizing that she needed income, she picked vegetables, worked as a welder, burner, riveter and health teacher until “the National Youth Administration (part of the Works Progress Administration) gave her a job in the wardrobe department in 1941, working backstage for “America Dances.””
Primus had been an outstanding athlete during her school days as a sprinter, who established records in the broad and high jump. And so when a spot opened up for a dancer, she filled in, and quickly discovered a natural gift for movement and connecting with the audience thanks to her athletic prowess and physical dexterity.
The NYA program ran its course. Pearl Eileen Primus thus auditioned for and received a scholarship at the New Dance Group, emerging as the school’s first Black student. Faculty members Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Nona Schurman and William Bales influenced her with their commitment to using dance as a tool for social reform.
“Primus also trained with Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Louis Horst, from whom she gained an eclectic foundation in modern dance.”
She made her theatrical debut on February 14, 1943 “performing her own African Ceremonial, Hard-Time Blues, Rock Daniel and Strange Fruit, works inspired by her dance training, ethnic background and cultural research, as well as influential black songwriters and poets like Langston Hughes.”
In 1942, Primus had made her debut at the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which then led to an engagement at the Café Society Downtown, a racially integrated nightclub and later gigs at the Café Society Uptown. She came to have her own troupe of dancers and musicians.
As early as 1943, Primus had begun to present carefully researched dance with African themes becoming the first American choreographer to do so.
She performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall with her Primus Company, as well as at the Belasco and Roxy Theatres. “She danced in the Los Angeles production of Showboat in 1944 and the Broadway revival two years later, followed by the Chicago Civic Opera’s production of The Emperor Jones, which she choreographed, and Broadway’s 1947 Caribbean Carnival.”
Now viewing dancing as a “wonderful healing medium,” Primus took dance more seriously but still kept her eye on medicine taking graduate-level courses.
The ambassador of African dance and the African experience in the Caribbean and United States paid attention to her sociological fieldwork. She disguised herself as a migrant worker and toured the South during the summer of 1944 to record at first hand the suffering of black people. Whiles there, she picked cotton and participated in black church services’ spontaneous dance and song, of whose African elements she associated with.
In April 1948, she was awarded a $4,000 grant by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to travel to Africa. On her first visit to the motherland, Primus spent 18 months “living with the natives of Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Angola, Cameroon, Senegal and Zaire, observing and recording their traditional dances.”
Primus first married award-winning film and television director Yael Woll in 1950, but the pair separated after three years. She then met dancer/choreographer Percival Borde while traveling through her native Trinidad in 1953. They married a year later and welcomed son, Onwin, in 1955.
In 1959, Primus received an MA in educational sociology from New York University and returned to Liberia, where she was named director of the country’s Performing Arts Center. “In 1963, she and Borde opened the Primus-Borde School of Primal Dance in NYC, where she developed methods of teaching cross-culturally.”
In 1974, Primus staged Fanga (1949) and The Wedding (1961), theatricalizations of African ritual dances, for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Primus received her PhD in anthropology from NYU in 1978, becoming the university’s first student to fulfill a language requirement with dance. A year later, she and Borde founded the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute in New Rochelle, New York, “where they offered classes that blended African and Caribbean dance forms with modern and ballet techniques.” Borde passed away later that year.
NYU, Hunter College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Howard University are some of the universities Primus taught at.
For Primus, dance was more than just entertainment. “I dance not to entertain, but to help people better understand each other . . . because through dance I have experienced the wordless joy of freedom,” she said of her life’s work. “I see it more fully now for my people and for all people everywhere.”
Relying on her Trinidadian heritage, combined with extensive studies in the Caribbean, Africa and the American South, Primus advocated dance as a means of uniting people against discrimination noting “when I dance, I am dancing as a human being, but a human being who has African roots.”
Primus taught and choreographed, confronting stereotypes and prejudice through movement. Her anthropological work exposed Americans to the realities of black life in America.
It is thanks to her that richness of African and Caribbean dance was tasted by an American audience who would have remained clueless. She remains a “profound influence on several generations of black choreographers and dancers, among them Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey.”
Ms. Primus was also a Five-College Professor of Ethnic Studies at schools in Massachusetts in the 1980’s. She continued to teach throughout the United States until her death on October 29, 1994 aged 74 from diabetes.
Primus received many honors, including an honorary doctorate from Spelman College, the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of American Anthropologists and the National Medal of Arts in 1991.