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HISTORIC ESSAYS

A Tale of Two Pioneers
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Pearl Primus
Pearl Primus.
She was born in Trinidad in 1919, and her family moved to America two years later in the wake of the Great Migration, when a phenomenal influx of blacks to Harlem led to a cultural explosion. Primus' introduction to dance several years later while she was a pre-med student at New York's Hunter College, was a bit serendipitous. She was looking for a job when she joined a National Youth Administration dance group and eventually found her way to the seminal New Dance Group Studio.

At the New Dance Group, Primus found a nurturing environment among dancers for whom their art was not an aesthetic distraction but a mission. The school has been described by Margaret Lloyd, the critic for the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, as a "respectable organization," "the sole survivor of the Workers' Dance League, which included Red Dancers and Rebel Dancers, Theatre, Needle Trades, and Office Union groups." Former Ailey dancer and teacher Dorene Richardson told "Free To Dance" that to anyone walking through the school's doors in the 1950s, it was clear that, at a time when "opportunity for a black modern dancer was almost nil," at the New Dance Group race was not seen as a roadblock. "The New Dance Group was always a very comfortable situation. You never felt, 'Well, you're black and you're white.' The main thrust was about dance, and if you were good, you were good ... everybody was extremely natural with each other."

In this environment, Primus too created works that were not simply abstractions -- art for art's sake -- but extensions of her roots and her beliefs. Performed at left-wing political protest rallies and taught during her classesat the progressive New Dance Group Studio in New York, Primus' "message" dances eventually caught the attention of the McCarthy witch hunts and caused her to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

One of Primus' performances also caught the attention of the administrators of the Rosenwald Fellowships, prompting them to award her the last and largest of the foundation's grants, which would finance an 18-month field trip to study dance in Africa's Gold Coast, Angola, Cameroon, Liberia, Senegal, and the Belgian Congo (as it was then called). After graduating from Hunter College, Primus had gone on to earn her Ph.D. in anthropology from New York University. This trip so inspired her that it introduced a new dimension to her choreography and paved the way for generations of African-American dancers who followed, tapping the rich cultural continuum running from Africa to the Caribbean and North America while also grappling with social and political issues that affected their lives. Primus held a unique position as more of a participant in than an outside observer of the cultures she explored. Her passionate interest in African culture was so impressive that His Royal Highness, King of the giant Watusi renamed her "Omowale" (child returned home), and the spiritual head of the Yoruba people of Nigeria designated her "Jaibundu" (first among dancers).

This first of many African trips introduced Primus to what would become her signature African dance, "Fanga," a dance of welcome. With this and other works, Primus reintroduced traditional African dance to the stage, following in the footsteps of Asadata Dafora and inspiring generations of companies and dancers for decades to come, including Abdel Salaam's Forces of Nature, Nana Yao Opare Dinizulu, Charles Moore, Ella Thompson, and Chuck Davis. They would stand on her shoulders, embracing the richness found along the African continuum.

As historian Lynne Fauley Emery put it, "Dunham opened the stages of American theatre for serious artistic performances by black dancers, and Primus brought the sense of dignity, authenticity, pride, power and beauty to those of African ancestry through the medium of dance." Actually, there was no division of labor: Dunham and Primus together paved the way for subsequent generations.

Copyright © 2001 by Zita Allen

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