Photo credits: Scurlock Studio Records
Pearl Primus (pictured) was born in Trinidad on November 29th, 1919. She was a choreographer and dancer. Edward and Emily Primus, Pearl’s parents, immigrated to the United States in 1921 when she was a little child.
Primus grew up in New York City and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and pre-medical science from Hunter College in 1940. Her aspiration to work as a medical researcher was, however, shattered at the time due to racial discrimination. When she approached the National Youth Association (NYA) for assistance, she was cast as a dancer in one of the organization’s performances.
Primus’ dancing ability was quickly recognized, and in 1941, she was granted a scholarship by the National Youth Association’s New Dance Group. She began dancing professionally in New York soon afterward as a soloist and in dance groups. In 1942, she performed with the NYA, and in 1943, she appeared with the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association. She made her solo debut in 1943.
Primus received a government grant in 1948 to study dance and used the funds to travel around Africa and the Caribbean, studying diverse styles of traditional dance, which she then brought back to the United States to perform and teach. Additionally, she devised dances that addressed anti-racism and anti-discrimination issues. One of her dances, Strange Fruit, was a protest against the lynchings of black people.
Primus later founded her own dance group and toured the United States. She also founded a dance school in Harlem to educate children and adolescents on how to perform. Primus came to Trinidad in 1953 to continue her dance career and met Percival Borde, her future husband. They married and had a child, who was also an accomplished dancer. He made his professional debut in 1958 when he joined her dance group at the age of five.
Pearl Primus continued to teach, create, and perform dances that addressed the human condition, as well as the plight of African Americans in a racist atmosphere. In 1978, she got a Ph.D. in dance teaching from the School of Education at New York University. At the time, her dance school, the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute, was also well-known worldwide.
Percival Borde was assassinated in 1979. Primus seldom performed after his death, but she sometimes presented African and African-American dances across the country. From 1984 to 1990, she also taught ethnic studies at the Five Colleges consortium in western Massachusetts.
Pearl Primus died in New Rochelle, New York, on October 29, 1994.
Reference: Mennenga, L. (2008, June 30). Pearl Primus (1919-1994). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/primus-pearl-1919-1994/