Pearl Primus in Folk Dance, 1945

Pearl Primus in Folk Dance (1945). As a performer she riveted audiences with the power of her jumps. (Photo by Gerda Peterich. Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives.)


Pearl Primus, Photo courtesy of American Dance Festival Archives Pearl Primus in Africa (ca. 1960). Peggy and Murray Schwartz write that when she traveled to Africa, Primus "mastered the dances of native villages in their cultural contexts, and was given the name 'Omowale' ('child returned home')." (Photograph from the Pearl Primus Papers; courtesy of the American Dance Festival Archives.)


A dancer, choreographer, and inspired proselytizer for African dance, Pearl Primus (1919-1994) was born in Trinidad. She came to New York as a child, received an excellent education, but found her ambition to be a doctor thwarted by racism. She received a scholarship from the New Dance Group and in 1943 made her debut at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA. She worked with Asadata Dafora, began a study of African and African-American material, and developed a repertory of dances emphasizing the rich variety of African diasporic traditions. In 1948, with a Julius Rosenwald Fund grant, she spent over a year in Africa, collecting material and documenting dances that in some cases were fading into history. Returning to New York, she opened the Pearl Primus School of Primal Dance. In 1961 she became the director of the African Performing Arts Center in Monrovia, Liberia, the first organization of its kind on the African continent. A buoyant and charismatic performer, Primus lectured widely and taught courses in anthropology and ethnic dance on many campuses. "I dance not to entertain," she once said, "but to help people to better understand each other."

Learn more in Pearl Primus, an essay by Peggy and Murray Schwartz.


Pearl Primus in Spirituals, one of the works she created to African-American
spirituals, filmed by Carol Lynn at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 1950.