In the 1940s and 1950s, Pearl Primus (1919-1994)--dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, educator (she was professor of Ethnic Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts)--created such a stir with her African-based dance works among critics and the public alike that Walter Terry, the dance critic, proclaimed her "the world's foremost authority on African dance."
That designation, resulting from her years of travel throughout the American South, the Caribbean, and Africa to study and document black dance in all of its forms, is anchored to her "search for roots" and her need to reveal "the dignity, beauty, and strength" of black people.
The Trinidadian -born artist-scholar's quest gave rise to a photo-biographical exhibition in 1989 called "A Search for Roots: The Life and Work of Dr. Pearl Primus," at the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York. The exhibit consisted of enlarged black-and-white performance photos from such dances as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," based on the Langston Hughes poem and "Haitian Play Dance" as well as facsimiles of printed concert programs.
In 1990, at New York's City Center, the Alvin Ailey dancers offered dancegoers, who weren't around during Primus's heyday, a real treat--the company premiere of one of her dance works, "Impinyuza." A paen to the royal dancers of the Watusi people, the dance, created in 1952, uses traditional music and costumes, and was reconstructed through funding provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.
African-American dance historian Joseph Nash, a Primus dancer from 1946 to 1947, laments the non-existence of a film record of Primus's work. Such films would have given the current generation of dancegoers the opportunity to see what inspired Vogue magazine in the 1940s to describe her movement as "a combination of intellectualized choreography and free emotional drive." Nash attributes this sad state of affairs to Primus not being placed in the hands of "good management. Sound management would have seen to it that everything she did was put on [movie film]." As a result, continues Nash, in a telephone interview from his Harlem apartment, Primus "is not [widely] known like [fellow dancer-choreographer-anthropologist Katherine] Dunham. You have to keep your name in the spotlight. Pearl's company went out[of existence] in the '50s and that was it. When your masterworks can not be seen, people forget you. You're just a figure in the history books."
Although there is no cinematic record of Primus's American concerts, she did tell James Briggs Murray, curator of the photo exhibit, "Black Visions: Movements of Ten Dance Masters," in an interview for the show's catalogue, that she found in an old trunk two reels of silent film shot in Zaire. "This is the only filmed record that I know of in existence of me at the height of my dancing."
By setting "Impinyuza" on the Ailey company, Pearl Primus's name and pioneering efforts in bringing African dance to American audiences will become better known, as well as prompt dance lovers to agree with one Primus admirer that she is indeed a "living national treasure."
Author's note: A version of this article originally appeared in the December 22, 1990 issue of the New York Amsterdam News.