In 1943, Pearl Primus leaped onto the New York stage of modern dance with her solo debut of “Strange Fruit.” Based on a poem by the same name, written by Lewis Allan and made famous in song by Billie Holiday, Pearl portrayed a White woman in the midst of a mob, who upon leaving the lynching grounds is suddenly gripped by the utter horror of the Black body swaying and the smell of burning flesh. Pearl raced across the stage and threw herself to the ground, writhed in evoked agony, pounded her fists on the floor, rose again, climbed five feet into the air, arched her back, and thrust her arms towards the heavens―all with explosive force and daunting grace.
It may have seemed implausible to this audience, brought to their feet by her artistry, that Pearl had not always intended to be a dancer. Born on November 29, 1919 in Trinidad, she immigrated with her family to New York City at age 2. Upon graduating Hunter’s College, she had in fact planned to become a physician. But unable to get a lab job due to skin color, Pearl took a scholarship with the New Dance Group, as its first Black student. Although her body was atypical for a modern dancer―she was short, had dark skin, and a muscular physique―she thrived under the instruction and as one teacher, Martha Graham commented, she danced with “the strength of a panther.”
Once she committed to her “wordless joy of freedom” and following her stunning debut, Pearl quickly ascended. She performed regularly at Café Society (the first integrated nightclub in the country). She played on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, the Roxy Theatre, political rallies, USO Camp shows, on national tours, and established her own Pearl Primus School of Primal Dance.
Pearl loved dancing, as well as understanding the influences that created a particular dance. This led her to enroll in an anthropology master’s program at Columbia University, where she was able to take classes from Margaret Mead. When she received a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship, she chose to study dance in West and Central Africa. Over the course of 18 months she traversed seven countries and studied 30 different ethnic groups, committing herself to their dances, rhythms, and stories. She basked in the Africans’ warmth and respect. The spiritual leader of the Yoruba people named her “Omowale” or “Child Returned Home,” which she relayed to audiences as an emblem of honor and affirmation throughout her career. She donned African attire―multicolored dresses, head wraps, bracelets dangling from her wrists, jewelry adorning her ears and neck―never again to appear in Western garb. Of her experience, she wrote:
This is a new life to me. The dancer is still very important in the lives of the people. The dancing is basic―not primitive. . . . It seems to hug the earth, leaving it fleetingly only to plunge into its guts again―,the feet move faster than any other form I’ve seen. …the dance here shows mastery of subtle movement―Oh―the tiny movement of the back, the use of the hands, and the minute ripple of the neck. . . . I danced as I have never danced on the stages of America.
Pearl’s trip brought her deeper into authentic African dance as she introduced it to, and validated it for, Americans. One Ebony magazine critic wrote, “[h]er soaring, high leaps into the air have made audiences audibly gasp and her deep concentration while performing an African ceremonial dance holds people in hypnotic fascination.” In her signature piece of “Fanga,” her graceful hands expressed welcoming, “from my heart to your heart.” She infused her classes with new energy and provided context for each movement. She taught dancers how to isolate control over individual parts of their bodies. Her warm-ups were grueling, her expectations exacting, and yet, students lined up to take her classes.
Blossoming into an international sensation, she performed in England for King George VI and danced at the inaugural ceremonies of President Tubman of Liberia. Her troupe was the first modern dance company to appear in Israel and presented concerts in France, Italy, and Finland. In 1953, she traveled with a group to Trinidad (her birth home), and played a leading role in the emerging Pan-African art and spiritual renewal.
Unexpectedly while in Trinidad, she fell in love with drummer/dancer Percival Borde. But, it was complicated; they were both already married―Pearl to a man she had married three years earlier and Percival (Percy) to a woman with whom he had a daughter. Percy left his family behind and followed Pearl to New York. In December 1955, Pearl gave birth to their son Onwin. They united to form a lasting intimate and professional partnership, in spite of the challenges―Pearl was a phenomenal talent and Percy a handsome philanderer.
Riding on Pearl’s international renown, the couple performed globally for three years running. The Pearl Primus Dance Tour of Africa, backed by the U.S. State Department, presented concerts in over a dozen countries. Based primarily in Liberia throughout, they founded a new dance school there.
In the States, the Civil Rights Movement was creating new opportunities for African-Americans. Taking advantage, Pearl and Percy returned and established themselves in academia and separate living environments. Percy at Binghamton University and Pearl at Hunter College. Ever expanding her reach, Pearl pioneered a lecture-demonstration format for 40 New York schools to teach young children about different cultures of the world. She showed up in African dress, brought out drummers, and moving off the excitement engaged the children in stories. She was arguably the first to introduce cultural diversity into American education.
Completing her own personal journey as a scholar, she received her Ph.D. in Educational Sociology and Anthropology from New York University in 1978.
In spite of her stellar credentials and innovative talents, over the years Pearl had developed a reputation for being ‘high maintenance.’ In academia, she shunned committee work and department meetings. On stage, some thought her hard to work with and perpetually late. Pearl’s answer to the question of why she dances provides a window into the disrespect she must certainly have endured while working in America. Her effort and focus cannot be underestimated.
Why do I dance? Dance is my medicine. It’s the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustration common to all humans beings who, because of race, creed or color, are ‘invisible.’. . . .It is the veiled contempt I feel for those who patronize with false smiles, handouts, empty promises, insincere compliments. . . . Instead of growing twisted like a gnarled tree inside myself, I am able to dance out my anger and frustrations.
It was then with great excitement, after a hiatus of more than a decade, Pearl reunited with Percy to dance. They received rave reviews at Carnegie Hall and booked concerts at other New York venues. But in 1980, as Percy exited the stage following his solo number, he suffered a heart attack and died at age 57. Pearl was shattered.
Eventually she returned to academic posts, and in 1984, the progressive Five Colleges at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst offered her a position. Happily, she filled her days with a flurry of classes, appearances, and cultural exchanges with the Barbados Dance Theatre Company.
But Pearl didn’t quite fit in. In an essay for the American Academy of Psychotherapists, called, In Dreams and Dance, she wrote that things were “brought to me in dreams and African people understand this. I hesitate to say this, as I am aware of how it sounds. But I am taught in my dreams.” Pearl’s style seemed to rankle many and as a consequence, Amherst never offered her a full professorship, forcing her out at the retirement age of 70.
Although money remained in short supply, tributes proliferated. She received several honorary doctorates, the National Medal of Arts presented by President George H.W. Bush, and numerous national awards. She continued to teach African, Caribbean, and Primus techniques of dance at various colleges.
Asked to restage “Strange Fruit” at Claremont in California, she realized her initial choreography had been so visceral that she found it challenging to coach the young woman taking her place. Pearl began appearing noticeably thinner at rehearsals, yet pushed herself. She had diabetes and refused to admit to her declining condition. One day after class she was unable to stand up. She told one of her dear students, “Daughter, your Mna is really tired and I don’t have the strength to plow another field. I want you to lay down a bank of prayers for me.” She died on October 29, 1994.
Coming of age in the 1940’s, the ‘Jim Crow’ era , Pearl danced intensely “to go around, scale, bore through, or batter down or ignore, visible and invisible social and economic walls,” enabling her to rise, undisputedly, to the top. She taught and embodied diversity as a dancer, educator, anthropologist, choreographer, story-teller, and cross-cultural innovator. And perhaps most important of all, as her friend Langston Hughes had written and Pearl had advised at a commencement speech, she held fast to her dreams.
By Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Schwartz, Peggy & Murray, The Dance Claimed Me, A Biography of Pearl Primus, Yale University Press, 2011.
Sherer, Stan, In Collaboration with Peggy & Murray Schwartz, Pearl Primus, “Omowale”, Child Returned Home, Film by Stan Sherer, 2020, available at http://www.stansherer.com/special/Pearl_Primus.mp4 (last viewed 08/05/20).
Dunkin, Anne, How They Became Famous Dancers, A Dancing History, Anne Dunkin, 2015.
Smith, Jessie Carney, Editor, Notable Black American Women, pp. 879-881, Pearl Primus, Gale Research Inc., 1992.
Cohen-Stratyner, Barbara, Pearl Primus in “Strange Fruit,” The New York Public Library Archives, 2016, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/08/29/pearl-primus-strange-fruit (last visited 08/04/20).
Dennis, Paul, In Conversation with Stan Sherer and Peggy and Murray Schwartz, Pearl Primus, “Omowale,” Child Returned Home, The Massachusetts Review, Feb. 14, 2020, https://www.massreview.org/node/8615 (last visited 08/04/20).
El, Olga, BWW Review: Pearl Primus: Pioneer of Modern Dance, African Dance, Dance as Protest, BroadwayWorld.com, March 12, 2020. https://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwdance/article/BWW-Review-Pearl-Primus-Pioneer-of-Modern-Dance-African-Dance-Dance-as-Protest-20200312 (last visited 08/04/20).
Gere, David, Dances of Sorrow, Dances of Hope: The work of Pearl Primus finds a natural place in a special program of historic modern dances for women. Primus’ 1943 work ‘Strange Fruit’ leaped over the boundaries of what was then considered ‘black dance,’ Los Angeles Times Archives, April 24, 1994, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-04-24-ca-49822-story.html (last visited 08/04/20).
Kisselgoff, Anna, Dance View; Pearl Primus Rejoices in the Black Tradition, New York Times Archive, June 19, 1988, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/19/arts/dance-view-pearl-primus-rejoices-in-the-black-tradition.html (last visited 08/04/20).
McCally, Karen, The Dancer Claimed Them, Rochester Review, July-August 2011, Vol. 73, No. 6, https://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V73N6/0501_schwartzes.html (last visited 08/04/20).
Perpener, John, Dance of the African Diaspora, Pearl Primus, Jacob’s Pillow, March 20, 2017, https://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/themes-essays/african-diaspora/pearl-primus/ (last visited 08/04/20).
2 thoughts on “PEARL PRIMUS : A PHENOMENAL SPIRIT IN DANCE (1919-1994)”
she got to study with such amazing people in nyc. it must have been such a hub of creativity in those days. justine yet again making her so alive and vital for us – thank you
Pearl’s story is inspirational and so well written. It’s was also infuriating to read how she was treated. I know it was, after all, still “jim crow” but it’s just painful to think what she had to endure. She was a force of nature a groundbreaker. I’d think, at least she may have found comfort and satisfaction knowing how her work led to new paths of opportunity for other black artists. But she should have been given tenure so she could live a nice retirement life like her colleagues at Amherst. So not cool.
Thank you for bringing her story alive for all of us to read and share with others.
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