Primus, Pearl (1919–1994) By Kowal, Rebekah J.
Dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus made significant strides toward securing a vital role for dance artists of color in American modern dance. Sparked by the Depression era mandate that dance aid the cause of social justice, Primus imagined and represented the world through the lens of the African diaspora. Her early performances fueled a critical debate within modern dance circles over reigning priorities regarding artistry, authenticity, and innovation. Travel to Africa for a year in 1949 prompted her to reconsider her assumptions about theatricality in modern dance from the perspective of ritual experience. A student of anthropology throughout her life, Primus pioneered approaches to choreography and to dance pedagogy that adapted ethnographic research, obtained largely through participant-observation, to the stage. Increasingly, over the span of her life, Primus participated in an international discourse about the African diasporic cultural continuum, advocating that black dance be defined on its own terms and not in relation to white dance aesthetics or cultural standards.