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Pearl Eileen Primus: The Godmother of African American Dance

Pearl Eileen Primus: The Godmother of African American Dance

As a dancer, it is with great shame that I admit before writing this article, I knew little about Pearl Eileen Primus. I blame the public school system. Yet, the more I read and learned about this dancer who at first wanted to be a doctor, the more my admiration grew. The dancer in me is in awe of Primus’s technique, speed, precision, and power. Known for her legendary leaps that took her five feet into the air. As a Black woman, I admired how she used her art, her dance, as an instrument of communication. She fiercely communicated to a misguided world the importance and influence of African dances. Primus’s life had many twists and turns. Born on November 29, 1919, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, her life served many others and still has importance today.

Her career began with many odd-end jobs, including a vegetable picker and a welder. Later, she took a job in the wardrobe department for the National Youth Administration. She worked backstage, which led to an opportunity to perform. When Primus took the stage, she glowed as she had a natural gift for movement.

Soon after her career started, she became the first African dancer of the New Dance Group. As she became more recognized in the dance world, she knew she had to serve a higher purpose. Although she once pursued a career in medicine, dance became her way of healing. A healing gift she used to support her community.

“Why do I dance? Dance is my medicine. It’s the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustration common to all human beings who because of race, creed, or color, are ‘invisible’. Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice.” Pearl Eileen Primus

(Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Her Experience in Africa

Primus won a scholarship by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to visit Africa. During her visit, she completed emerged herself in the culture. Primus lived with the people of Nigeria, Liberia, and Senegal. In these countries, she watched and recorded their traditional dances. Absorbing knowledge and tradition that once robbed from so many African Americans. She was so involved in daily African life that she was renamed “Omowale,” which translates to “child returned home.” She also received the Star of Africa award bestowed on her by the president of Liberia in 1949. Primus is quoted saying that she could have stayed in Africa, but she knew she had a bigger purpose to serve in the United States. Upon returning to the U.S., she created many remarkable pieces that tied together what she had learned and observed during her trip.

Her Influence and Performances in the United States

In 1944, Primus started her own dance company. Her other accomplishments included being the director of the Performing Arts Centre in Liberia from 1959–1961. Followed by her degrees, a Master of Education, and a Doctorate in Anthropology from New York University. When she introduced dances from the Caribbean and Africa to audiences, she was deliberate in her actions. She was sure to maintain the authenticity and the integrity of the movements. She would dance as a tool to help people understand one another.

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With Primus, taught and performed,she told the story behind the movements. The history and the purpose of the movements. In a New York Times article about Primus’s, one ninth-grade student spoke of nuance and tradition that Primus brought to their classes. Although they had practiced African dances before, Primus brought knowledge of the tribes from which certain dances came. She taught them that dance can be used as a language.

She drew her inspiration from Black writers and performers for her dances. When she started to presented more African dances, she received pushback from different audiences. Many people called her dances “primitive.” To her, primitive meant that she was different, joyful. One of her most well-known works was an interpretation of The Negro Speaks of River, a powerful poem by Langston Hughes. In the piece, Primus communicates through movement the honest struggle and hope that Hughes displays in his poem. She accredits the strength and wisdom of African Americans throughout enslavement and freedom.

Another infamous piece was her performance to the Strange Fruit, the poem by Abel Meeropol (publishing as Lewis Allan). In her explanation of the piece, she dances a woman reacting to the lynching. Expressing her anger, frustration, and horror through movement. A combination of smooth and fast rolls, twists, and turns demonstrates the emotion behind these heinous events.

“The dance begins as the last person begins to leave the lynching ground and the horror of what she has seen grips her, and she has to do a smooth, fast roll away from that burning flesh.” — Pearl Primus on Strange Fruit, Five Evenings with American Dance Pioneers: Pearl Primus, April 29th, 1983.

In retelling Primus’s story, something that stood out to me was that dance found its way to her. When she embraced her natural gifts, she was able to do capture the attention of everyone in the dance world. A reminder to us all to accept our gifts, even if the world pushes back. Even if we find ourselves on a different path, we can always find our way back to where we are meant to be. Primus continued dancing and performing into her later years because she kept burning fire of passion lit inside of her.

(Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

“Yes, they liked my jumps, but I didn’t leap just for leaping’s sake. I had something to say in movement at all times. I started to dance to show the dignity and the beauty and the strength of Black people. I wanted to show white people that there is a respect due this culture. And I danced to show Black people that this is a great heritage.” – Pearl Primus

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