in 1919, Pearl Primus was born.
She played an important role in the presentation of African dance to American audiences. Early in her career she saw the needs to promote African dance as an art form worthy of study and performance. Primus’ work was a reaction to myths of savagery and the lack of knowledge about African people. It was an effort to guide the Western world to view African dance as an important and dignified statement about another way of life. Additionally, her work provided a knowledge and meaning for dances that had been plagued by distortion of movement and excessive hip shaking of the backside.
Primus was born in Trinidad in 1919 to Edward and Emily (Jackson) Primus. Among her relations were drummers and initiates into the Shango/Spiritual Baptist faith. Her maternal grandfather, in particular, was an Ashanti musician from Ghana. When Pearl Primus was two years old she, with her two brothers were brought to New York City where they were reared. Although her parents did not exhibit theatrical tendencies, Primus’ mother had learned the social dances of Trinidad from her grandfather. Primus also had a colorful aunt who sympathized with her decision to embrace dance. When that came, this aunt who dressed in unusually colorful clothing, exclaimed that she would have been shocked had Primus not become an entertainer.
Primus also choreographed a work to Langston Hughes’s long famous poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which was performed at her Broadway debut on October 4, 1944 at the Bealson Theatre.
She then began to study more intensively at the New Dance Group and became one of their instructors. In the summer of 1944, Primus visited the Deep South to research the culture and dances of Southern blacks. She visited over seventy churches and picked cotton with the sharecroppers. In December 1943, Primus appeared as a guest artist in Asadata Dafora’s African Dance Festival at Carnegie Hall.
In December 1944, Primus, who was primarily a solo artist recruited other dancers and performed in concerts at the Roxy Theatre. African Ceremonial was rechoreographed for a group performance. At this time, Primus’ African choreography could be termed interpretive, based on research and her imagining of the way in which a piece of African sculpture would move.
In 1946, Primus was invited to appear in the revival of the Broadway production Showboat choreographed by Helen Tamiris. Then, she was asked to choreograph a Broadway production called Calypso whose title became Caribbean Carnival. She also appeared at the Chicago Theatre in the 1947 revival of the Emperor Jones in the ‘’’Witch Doctor’’’ role that Hemsley Winfield made famous.
Following this show and many subsequent recitals, Primus toured the nation with a company she formed. While on the university and college circuit, Primus performed at Fisk University in 1948, where Dr. Charles S. Johnson, a member of Rosenwald Foundation board, was president. He was so impressed with the power of her interpretive African dances that he asked her when she had last visited Africa. She replied that she had never done so. She then received the last and largest ($4000) of the major Rosenwald Fellowships for an eighteen month research and study tour of the Gold Coast, Angola, Cameroons, Liberia, Senegal and the Belgian Congo.
Primus was so well accepted in the communities in her study tour that she was told that the ancestral spirit of an African dancer had manifested in her. The Oni and people of Ife, Nigeria, felt that she was so much a part of their community that they initiated her into their commonwealth and affectionately conferred on her the title Omowale- the child who has returned home.