Fierce! Dr Pearl Primus: Pioneer of Modern African American Dance


Internationally famous choreographer, dancer, anthropologist, Dr. Pearl Eileen Primus (1919-1994) was hailed by critics as " of the United States' most spectacular dancers." Her interpretation of Black Heritage through the medium of dance was regarded as being without peer this of the Atlantic.

Pearl Primus conducted extensive research in Africa, the Caribbean Islands and the Southlands of the United States. She lived and worked with the people of these regions and shared their daily lives. The Oni (King) of Ife, H.E. Sir Adesoji Aderemi II, who ruled as Spiritual Head of the Yoruba People of Modern Nigeria (1930-1980), officially adopted her as his daughter and renamed her Omowale - translated as, "child returned home.

An honored member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Pearl Primus' extensive studies into Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures found expression in her art form, in her dedication to education, and in the promotion of greater understanding between all peoples.

She was the recipient of numerous honors and awards among which are: The cherished Liberian Government Decoration, "Star of Africa"; The Scroll of Honor from the National Council of Negro Women; Membership in Phi Beta Kappa; The National Culture Award from the New York State Federation of Foreign Language Teachers Commendation from the White House Conference on Children and Youth.

As a working artist, Pearl Primus made appearances as a soloist and with her own professional company of dancers, singers and musicians at numerous concerts, operas, and festivals throughout the United States, Europe, Israel, Africa, the Caribbean Islands and Mexico.

From Harlem to Broadway, as well as American TV, she displayed with phenomenal precision and agility the unique Pearl Primus Dance Technique woven from her personal studies of African, Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean dance and life, the Modern Dance techniques of America and the Ballet.

During her peak, Dr. Pearl Primus was frequently requested to give Command Performances before distinguished heads of StateAs an Artist/Educator, Dr. Primus lectured at outstanding universities and centers of learning in America and abroad. She was an ethnologist for major art museums and Broadway productions. She received her BA from Hunter College, her MA in Educational Sociology and Anthropology and her Ph.D. in Anthropology from New York University.

As an Anthropologist, she conducted cultural projects in Europe, Africa and America for such organizations as the Ford Foundation, US Office of Education, New York University, Universalist Unitarian Service Committee, Julius Rosenwald Foundation, New York State Office of Education, and the Council for the Arts in Westchester.

Her choreographed works, The Wedding (1961) and Fanga (1949), were performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and greeted with thunderous ovations from audiences and critics at City Center Theater and the State Theater at Lincoln Center, New York City. Her album, Pearl Primus' Africa - produced especially to assist teachers in elementary and high schools - was received with great acclaim in the field of education.

Their work together would keep them in the Southern Tier NY area for extended periods of time, so they maintained a residency in Johnson City.  In 1985, Dr. Primus was given a commendation by the City of Binghamton for her use of arts "to promote Black culture and interracial understanding."

Still, Westchester, New York was where the family made their home. Dr. Pearl Primus was given numerous honors from her community including: selection as "One of Westchester's most admired women" by Westchester Magazine, and as "1974 Woman of the Year" by the Westchester Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

She was cited for her integrity as an artist by the New Covenant Church of the Holy Spirit in New Rochelle, commended by the Human Rights Commission of New Rochelle, honored by the Youth Bureau of New Rochelle for her "outstanding contribution to youth," and further honored by the Westchester Chapter of Hunter Alumni.

 She served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for the Arts in Westchester and as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Neuberger Museum. In Westchester she taught at State University of New York at Purchase, College of New Rochelle, Iona College and assisted the New Rochelle High School with cultural presentations.

At the time of her death (1994), Pearl Primus was working on plans for The Pearl Primus Dance Arts Foundation. She felt that more needed to be done to preserve and document the great dance heritage of the people of African ancestry as part of the cultural contribution of America to the world.

Dr. Pearl Primus was indeed a privileged person. And she often would say this.

As choreographer and dancer she had the privilege of studying modern dance techniques with America's great dance pioneers- Martha Graham (1894-1991), Doris Humphrey (1895-1958), Hanya Holm (1893-1992) and Charles Weidman (1901-1975).

She was trained in classical and pre-classical dance forms by the master teacher, Louis Horst (1884-1964).Her knowledge of ballet, character and folk dances of Europe and America as well as her solid base in creative modern was gained by study at the New Dance Group in New York City.

Dr. Primus created her own dynamic technique of dance. She and husband/partner Professor Percival Sebastian Borde taught this technique in various American universities. She founded and directed the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology from N.Y.U. In the fields of Anthropology, Art and Human Relations, the names of those great teachers who shared their specialized knowledge with Pearl Primus read like a Who's Who.

Not only were these pioneers her professors at Columbia University and New York University, they were also her special friends.

Among these distinguished professors were Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, Ralph Linton, George Herzog, Margaret Mead, Duncan Strong, Paul Wingert, William Sears, Ethel Alpenfels, Dan Dodson, Gene Weltfish, Charles Wagley, Harry Shapiro, Joseph Greenberg, Elsie Hug, Marion Smith and Patricia Rowe.

All of these and other outstanding scholars helped stimulate, feed and direct her mind.

African, American, European and Caribbean governments; institutions of higher education; national, state, city and private funding sources; and community-based organizations: all afforded her valuable experience as a project director, arts administrator, consultant for cultural affairs, curriculum developer and special conference delegate.

Dr. Pearl E. Primus was the recipient of one of the first Three Year Choreographers Fellowship Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as previous NEA Grants, numerous other awards and honors.

Pearl Primus was also Director of the Cora P. Maloney College at State University of New York at Buffalo, while holding the position of Associate Professor in Theater and Dance.

She was always accompanied by her late son, Master Drummer Onwin Babajide Primus Borde, whenever she presented her professional dance company Earth Theater, or when performing in concert, and when lecturing and conducting workshops.

Dr. Pearl E. Primus was truly unique in her field.


Source: 'DANCE: A Tribute to Pearl Primus' in

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The dance is strong magic. The dance is a spirit. It turns the body to liquid steel. It makes it vibrate like a guitar. The body can fly without wings. It can sing without voice. The dance is strong magic. The dance is life. - Pearl Primus

Black Dance and Performing Arts

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