Although Pearl Primus was born in Trinidad and grew up in New York City, she identified strongly with her African heritage from a young age. When, in 1948, she was awarded a fellowship to pay for a trip, she wrote, “My soul hopped out of my body, swung on the lights, and kissed everyone present…”
In The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus, Peggy and Murray Schwartz leave the reader in no doubt that the famous dancer, anthropologist, and teacher had a soul that was capable of such feats. Her dances were filled with vitality and political radicalism, and the Schwartzes, who knew Primus well during the last decades of her life, write of seeming to feel her spirit the night after her death in October of 1994.
Primus’ initial enthusiasm at winning the Rosenwald Foundation fellowship carried over into her eighteen-month-long trip to Africa, during which she studied at least thirty culture groups, making drawings and notes about language usage. Her groundbreaking doctoral thesis—a dance-oriented anthropology that was the first of its kind—drew from her notebooks, and her own choreography, which had previously been focused mainly on the African American experience, began to draw on African dance and African life as its main source of inspiration.
“I have been taken into many tribes and show many wonders…” Primus wrote of her 1948 travels. In one community, she was inducted into what she described as a female cult—in another, the chief declared her to be a man so she could learn the dances typically performed only by the males of the tribe. These experiences invigorated her; the Schwartzes note that the photographs of Primus in books—where she often appears as one of the central figures of American dance history in the 20th century—almost invariable picture her mid-leap, vividly illustrating the exuberant energy that characterized her style.
Later, Primus would take other trips to Africa, Trinidad, and elsewhere, developing her dance and inciting controversies as to the relationship between African American artists and the purely African tradition. She would become known as a dancer, an academic, a teacher of teachers—“a shining light in the field of dance.” Still, through the years, this first “transformative” trip to Africa would always be remembered as an important step (or perhaps, leap) in the graceful dance of life that claimed her.
Next Thursday, February 16, the Schwartzes will visit Wesleyan University’s Center for Film Studies to share original footage of Primus’ work and talk about the dance pioneer. Check out the book’s Facebook page for details and more on Primus and her legacy.