Dance History: Pearl Primus

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Pearl Eileen Primus (1919–1994) was an ambassador of African dance and the African experience in the Caribbean and United States. Her Trinidadian heritage, combined with extensive studies in the Caribbean, Africa and the American South, became the lens through which she taught and choreographed. Confronting stereotypes and prejudice through movement, she advocated dance as a means of uniting people against discrimination. “When I dance, I am dancing as a human being, but a human being who has African roots," she declared of her work.


Primus was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Albertha Emily Jackson and Onwin Edward Primus. Four years later, her father immigrated to the U.S., with Primus, her mother and younger brother Edward following one year after in 1924. They settled in Manhattan, where Albertha gave birth to a third child, Carl, but later moved to Brooklyn.

Primus attended public schools, including Hunter College High School, before earning a BA in biology and premed from Hunter College in 1940. Aspiring to become a doctor, she applied for jobs as a laboratory technician to earn money for medical school, but was not able to land a job. She made a living through various odd jobs, including vegetable picker, 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." Once a spot opened up for a dancer, Primus filled in, and quickly discovered a natural gift for movement and connecting with the audience.

After the NYA program folded, she auditioned for and received a scholarship at the New Dance Group (becoming their first African-American student), where her “qualities of spontaneity, speed and power were instantly recognized," wrote Margaret Lloyd, author of The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. The faculty, which included Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Nona Schurman and William Bales, greatly influenced Primus 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 later studied ballet and was soon dancing with the NDG performance company.

In 1942, the 92nd Street Y initiated a concert series to showcase the work of young dancers, in which Primus made her theatrical debut on February 14, 1943. She performed 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. This prompted The New York Times dance critic John Martin to rave that “if Miss Primus walked away with the lion's share of the honors, it was partly because her material was more theatrically effective, but also because she is a remarkably gifted artist." He later proclaimed her to be “the most distinguished newcomer of the season."

Such praise, though, caused Primus to doubt her long-term goal of becoming a medical doctor. She turned to Martin for advice, and he encouraged her to look at dancing as a “wonderful healing medium" as well. From then on, Primus focused more exclusively on dance, but continued her studies, taking graduate-level courses.

In April 1943, she began an engagement at the Café Society Downtown, a racially integrated nightclub whose small stage she filled with power, emotion and her famous five-foot-high jumps. During this time, she also performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, and her new dance group, the Primus Company, performed 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.

Primus also felt the need to devote time to performing sociological fieldwork. During the summer of 1944, she toured the South, posing as a migrant worker, “to know my own people where they are suffering the most." She picked cotton and participated in black church services' spontaneous dance and song, in which she recognized African roots. In April 1948, she was awarded a $4,000 grant by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to travel to Africa. She spent a year visiting and living with the natives of Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Angola, Cameroon, Senegal and Zaire, observing and recording their traditional dances. In Nigeria, she was renamed “Omowale," meaning “child returned home."

Primus married award-winning film and television director Yael Woll in 1950, but the union did not last—they were separated after three years. In 1953 she met dancer/choreographer Percival Borde while traveling through Trinidad, and they married a year later. They welcomed their 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. Three years later, she initiated an experimental learning project that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education and placed in NYC schools to further test her methods. It was a soaring success.

In 1974, Primus staged Fanga (1949) and The Wedding (1961), theatricalizations of African ritual dances, for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ted Pollen, an Ailey scholarship student at the time, remembers her as a gracious teacher who, unlike many others, did not use harsh criticisms to motivate dancers. “She showed us how to improve ourselves as dancers and artists by tapping into what dance means to people who are not professional dancers; dance as a way of life as opposed to a way of making a living."

Still eager to further her academic knowledge, Primus received her PhD in anthropology from NYU in 1978, becoming the university's first student to fulfill a language requirement with dance. In 1979, 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. Their performance group was called Earth Theatre. Borde passed away later that year.

Throughout her career, Primus taught at numerous universities, including NYU, Hunter College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Howard University and Five College Dance Department. She remained active in the dance community until succumbing to diabetes at her New Rochelle home on October 29, 1994.

In acknowledgement of her immense impact and extraordinary vision, 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.

Primus was a force of unparalleled energy and drive, who challenged societal norms with masterful work that honored her ancestors and enlightened generations to come. “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."

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

It can happen so quickly. One moment a promising student is strong and pushing their way forward to success, and then suddenly they begin to evaporate before your eyes. Research has consistently shown that dancers are at least three times as likely to experience an eating disorder compared to the general population. So even if you are doing everything "right," you may still find yourself advocating for the wellness of a student battling disordered eating. By setting a proactive groundwork of support and confronting the issue head-on in the studio, you may have the power to change the movement of disordered eating in dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Aidan Gibney, courtesy of Lanzisera

Walking into Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles at 11:30 am on any given Tuesday or Thursday, you're likely to find a large group of dancers flocking to take Nick Lanzisera's class. Millennium's staff says his contemporary class is so popular, he often fills their rooms with up to 80 students.

Lanzisera, whose professional credits include The Oscars, The Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, High School Musical 2 and 3, Fame, Footloose and more, got his teaching start as a substitute for one of his mentors, Erica Sobol, at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Though he didn't expect to become an educator until later in his career, Lanzisera enjoyed the experience so much that he began to sub in regularly. One of those classes was attended by a manager at Millennium, who invited him to teach their new contemporary class, and he has maintained the same Tuesday/Thursday slot for nearly eight years.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

Keep reading... Show less
Instagram
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox