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The Dance Claimed Me

The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus

Peggy Schwartz
Murray Schwartz
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Dance Claimed Me
    Book Description:

    Pearl Primus (1919-1994) blazed onto the dance scene in 1943 with stunning works that incorporated social and racial protest into their dance aesthetic. InThe Dance Claimed Me, Peggy and Murray Schwartz, friends and colleagues of Primus, offer an intimate perspective on her life and explore her influences on American culture, dance, and education. They trace Primus's path from her childhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad, through her rise as an influential international dancer, an early member of the New Dance Group (whose motto was "Dance is a weapon"), and a pioneer in dance anthropology.

    Primus traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, Israel, the Caribbean, and Africa, and she played an important role in presenting authentic African dance to American audiences. She engendered controversy in both her private and professional lives, marrying a white Jewish man during a time of segregation and challenging black intellectuals who opposed the "primitive" in her choreography. Her political protests and mixed-race tours in the South triggered an FBI investigation, even as she was celebrated by dance critics and by contemporaries like Langston Hughes.

    ForThe Dance Claimed Me, the Schwartzes interviewed more than a hundred of Primus's family members, friends, and fellow artists, as well as other individuals to create a vivid portrayal of a life filled with passion, drama, determination, fearlessness, and brilliance.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15643-0
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Open any major book of twentieth-century American dance history and you will encounter the name Pearl Primus and, most likely, an exuberant image of a powerful, leaping body. The recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, Pearl was a dancer, anthropologist, and educator who had a significant impact on American arts and culture in the twentieth century. She danced to protest the conditions of African Americans, brought the ancient dances of Africa to America, and, controversially, carried her knowledge of dance, music, theater, anthropology, and education to Africa itself. Yet the full story of her creative life and teaching,...

  4. ONE From Laventille to Camp Wo-Chi-Ca
    (pp. 11-28)

    Laventille, the poor neighborhood in Port of Spain where Pearl Primus was born, stands in the hills above the city, looking down on the commercial center and the ocean. “I was born in Trinidad, July or November, 1919.”¹ Pearl was never sure which was correct. Some history books say November 29, 1919. Other sources give dates ranging from 1917 to 1923. Pearl’s homeland is an island of complex colonial histories and richly intersecting ethnic identities. Her maternal grandfather, the head drummer of Trinidad, was descended from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana and the Ibo from eastern Nigeria. “I grew up...

  5. TWO A Life in Dance
    (pp. 29-68)

    During her last years at Hunter College, in around 1940 Pearl became involved with the New Dance Group, which was founded against the background of a nation devastated by the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The New Dance Group emerged in 1932 as a unit of the Worker’s Dance League, when dancers in the Worker’s Dance Group joined a rally and parade to protest the shooting death of a young labor organizer, Harry Simms, by police in New Jersey. The founding young women would meet to discuss social issues affecting the United States and other countries....

  6. THREE African Transformations
    (pp. 69-98)

    Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of the Sears Company, was drawn toward leftist causes. In 1917, he founded the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, which funded universities, museums, hospitals, public schools, the fine arts, social settlements, and many other causes. Rosenwald was particularly interested in Jewish and African American organizations and individuals, and he assisted Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, and Ralph Ellison, among others. “Not every Rosenwald fellow became famous, but the number of people who used the award to embark on their careers is remarkable,” biographer Peter Ascoli observed.¹ Rosenwald did...

  7. FOUR Teaching, Traveling, and the FBI
    (pp. 99-115)

    In december 1950,Theater Artspublished an article entitled “The Voice of the Earth,” which reads like a description of Pearl’s developing technique and new school, the Pearl Primus School of Primal Dance. Clearly Pearl’s writing, it is both an etiological myth and a promotional statement:

    Man struck a hollow tree with his club and as the intruder boomed forth he leaped into the air! The first musician! He crouched low and slowly approached the tree again—for surely there was magic in it, and he must be cautious. He struck it again—and again the deep thunder plunged through...

  8. FIVE Trinidad Communities
    (pp. 116-141)

    Having successfully performed the delicate dance required by FBI surveillance, Pearl finally received permission to travel to Trinidad in the summer of 1953, her first trip back since leaving as a young child. Returning to the scenes of her origins, she was seeking to navigate her own route through the cultural crosscurrents that flowed between Trinidad and New York. Africanist culture returned to Trinidad via West Indians who moved to New York, traveled to Africa, and then went back to Trinidad, though the route could also start in Africa and move to Port of Spain, to New York, and back...

  9. Photo gallery
    (pp. None)
  10. SIX Return to Africa
    (pp. 142-155)

    Pearl aspired to develop a heightened awareness among African cultures of the power and majesty of their native arts, and she wanted to bring African groups to a level of performance that would enable them to tour successfully for African, European, and American audiences. In the late 1950s and early 1960s she worked tirelessly to realize this vision, raising money, drafting proposals, and enlisting support of government and private agencies as well as businesses.

    In 1958, Pearl proposed to form the First African Dance Theater. On Pearl Primus Dance Studio stationery, which, incidentally, identifies Percival Borde as the director, she...

  11. SEVEN The PhD
    (pp. 156-168)

    “Sheroes” is a feminist term for women who inspire other women, and this African American woman, an anthropologist and inspiring teacher who would later become president of Spelman and Bennett Colleges in Atlanta, was deeply inspired by Pearl. When Cole was a student there were very few role models within academia for black women. Pearl was among the first to aspire to a PhD even as she was actively pursuing other career goals and performing to great acclaim throughout the United States and abroad.

    Intellectual curiosity had always accompanied Pearl’s choreography, but after the Rosenwald trip to Africa, the dancer,...

  12. EIGHT The Turn to Teaching and Return to the Stage
    (pp. 169-199)

    After her return from Africa in 1963, Pearl continued to mature as an educator and artist. She was fully acknowledged in the dance world, but, living between cultures, and between the stage and educational institutions, she wanted “just folk” around her, her folk, and didn’t court celebrity status for its own sake. She felt at home having a ginger ale with an old friend or the mother of a former student, or visiting the director of a community center, or cooking her favorite African recipes. In her public life, she taught in academic settings, restaged work, choreographed, worked with community...

  13. NINE Academic Trials and Triumphs
    (pp. 200-217)

    After percy died, Pearl was asked to complete his contract at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton for the 1979–80 academic year. In an interview tied to an upcoming performance at Avery Fisher Hall, “Afro-Brazilian-Haitian Dance Explosion!” Pearl expressed her desire for a firm academic appointment as a base for her work, and she alluded to “plans she hopes to implement in her husband’s program at SUNY/Binghamton.” She would bring “insights which have persistently eluded many of her colleagues—dancers and academicians.” “Her approach to dance strikes a delicate balance between scholarly methodology and performance,” the...

  14. TEN Transmitting the Work
    (pp. 218-235)

    Upon her arrival in amherst to take up her appointment in the Five Colleges in September 1984, Pearl assembled a cast for a new version of “Excerpts from an African Journey,” the concert and lecture-demonstration format she had developed many years earlier. Pearl took dancers of mixed abilities, mostly white, few of whom had had any experience with African dance, and created a village atmosphere. Her training of these students was important far beyond the performance itself, as she was teaching them to transcend categorizations by race, and the work itself was stellar.

    At the beginning of the second half...

  15. ELEVEN Barbados: Return to the Sea
    (pp. 236-248)

    In her last decade concern for her legacy was only one level of Pearl’s consciousness. Just before the start of her 1984 teaching appointment in Amherst, she made her first trip to Barbados, a journey that signified a return to her roots, for in the practices of the Spiritual Baptist Church she rediscovered elements of her West Indian heritage, and in the Barbados Dance Theatre Company she revitalized her link to Caribbean and African dance traditions. As her journey to Africa embodied a first transformational experience, the immersion in the Spiritual Baptist Church provided a final location, more important to...

  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 249-252)
  17. Appendix I: Pearl Primus Timeline
    (pp. 253-282)
  18. Appendix II: Interviews
    (pp. 283-286)
  19. A Note on Sources and Documentation
    (pp. 287-288)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 289-298)
  21. Works Cited
    (pp. 299-304)
  22. Index
    (pp. 305-324)