#TBT: Pearl Primus on Fighting Ignorance and Prejudice Through Dance

June 23, 2021

Born in Trinidad in 1919 and raised in New York City from a young age, Pearl Primus did not come to formal dance training until 1941, after earning an undergraduate degree in biology. She studied with New Dance Group, with which she made her professional performance debut in 1943.

A sensational performer, she quickly became a darling of the nightclub circuit, Broadway and concert dance alike. Her choreography drew on both her formal training and her curiosity about her ancestral roots in the African diaspora; before she undertook her first of many fruitful field research trips in 1948, she put together her dances based on her postgraduate anthropological studies. (She earned her PhD in 1978.)

In an archival photo, Pearl Primus is caught midair. Her knees are tucked up underneath her, legs largely hidden by a black skirt. Her straight arms stretch before and behind her, the front hand in a fist, the back hand splayed wide. Her head is inclined toward the floor, eyes closed in an expression of joyous release.

Pearl Primus in the Broadway musical Show Boat (1946)

Gerda Peterich, Courtesy DM Archives

In the November 1968 issue of Dance Magazine, she said, “The dance has been my freedom and my world. It has enabled me to go around, scale, bore through, batter down or ignore visible and invisible social and economic walls. I have danced across mountains and deserts, ancient rivers and oceans and slipped through the boundaries of time and space…Dance is my medicine. It’s the scream which eases for awhile the terrible frustration common to all human beings who, because of race, creed or color, are ‘invisible.’ Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice. It is the veiled contempt I feel for those who patronize with false smiles, handouts, empty promises, insincere compliments…Instead of growing twisted like a gnarled tree inside myself, I am able to dance out my anger and my frustrations.”