African-American History Month Dance Spotlight: Pearl Primus

African-American History Month Dance Spotlight: Pearl Primus

This month we pay tribute to Pearl Primus, a dancer, anthropologist, choreographer, teacher and – ultimately – a doctor who lived from Nov. 29, 1919 – Oct. 29, 1994.

Primus was born in Trinidad but her family immigrated to New York City when she was two years old.  Primus attended Hunter College and obtained her Bachelor’s in Biology.  She was planning on going to medical school and planned to pay for it by obtaining a job in the medical field.  She was unable to secure a job due to racial discrimination.  Instead, she worked backstage in a dance production and these two events changed the trajectory of her career.  A few years later, she won a scholarship with The New Dance Group and took a variety of dances classes.

Becoming a Dance Anthropologist

Primus researched West African and Caribbean cultures and their dance practices.  In 1948, she received the Rosenwald Foundation scholarship to travel to West Africa and study their dances.  This was just the start of her research.  The research ultimately led Primus to choreograph routines that combined the dances and techniques of West African dances with ballet techniques and modern dance with her own view point:  Anthropology. 

Sharing Work Globally

Her research and chorography raised awareness to life in Africa and the average life of African-Americans which dealt with racism.  After researching on the African continent for 3 years, Primus performed many of the learned dances across the world.  Some of the tribal dances were disappearing out of awareness before she started researching and performing them.  A couple of her famous pieces are “Strange Fruit” (trigger warning) and “The Wedding.”

Countering Racism & Disproving Myths

During her time, there were many white critics who believed African-Americans were not physically capable of particularly dancing ballet and modern dance.  Many critics also saw African dances as savage dances.  Primus destroyed the racist criticism.  Her choreography and performances that combined modern and ballet dance with African-based dances showed that African-Americans can indeed dance modern and ballet.  Her extensive research and performances’ popularity disproved the myth as well.

Take a look at Pearl Primus performing the African Dance, Fanga. 

A Take Away

Once Primus’ dance career had lifted 0ff, she performed solos, appeared on Broadway, taught many students, was declared one of the best newcomers of the season, and received the national medal of the arts.  She ultimately obtained a Master’s in Education, PhD in Anthropology, and taught others the anthropology of dance due to her research.  Pearl Primus originally tried to go into a career that could help others but racism tried to stop her from shining her light.  Primus still went onto to help others and still became a doctor… just in an unexpected way.  Hopefully, we can all learn from her spirit and not lose sight of our true purpose no matter who or what tries to hold us back. 


Learn More:

Pearl Primus: Pearl in our Midst | Dance Research Journal | Cambridge Core

Pearl Primus Performance of Fanga Dance – YouTube

Pearl Primus | Biography, Dance, & Facts | Britannica

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