Ever heard of dancer Pearl Primus? Emerson WLP Professor Murray Schwartz admits few people have, even though she is the person most responsible for bringing African dance to America.
“She wasn’t widely known because she wasn’t primarily interested in being a celebrity,” Schwartz explained.
When The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus, a book by Murray and his wife, Peggy Schwartz, is released in April, the authors hope to spur a revival of Primus’s work.
“She was an important African American woman in both the history of dance and American culture,” said Schwartz, who knew Primus personally.
“She was not only a dancer but she was an anthropologist—one of the first black women to get a PhD in anthropology.”
“My wife and I came to know Primus in the last part of her life,” he recalled.
Schwartz first met Primus in what he called a happy coincidence. She had applied for a position at Cora P. Maloney College, when he was the then-dean of The Colleges at SUNY Buffalo. He admitted that he had no idea who she was, but his wife, who was a dancer, knew Primus’s work very well.
“By good fortune, I was able to bring her to the college and she taught there for several years,” Schwartz said.
When he took a position at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he brought Primus with him. She spent several years as a five-college professor. She died in 1994, but her legacy lives on, said Schwartz.
Primus choreographed some of the most important protest dances of the 1940s. Among her most noted are “Strange Fruit” and “Hard Times Blues,” both of which were created to protest the lynching of blacks in the South.
“The dances were astonishingly powerful and recognized very widely by people like Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, who wrote about them at the time,” said Schwartz. “Those dances are now being revived and performed again and again.”
Primus also created the first mixed-race dance troupe to bring modern dance to cities and colleges in the American South. She even invented what is called the “lecture-demonstration format” for teaching how dance fits into cultures, such as the African influence on dance styles in Haiti and the U.S. South.
“Her fame was in the forties and fifties, and after that she did most of her work in a way that people call ‘subterranean.’ She had a lot of influence on people but she was not mainly performing for most of that time—she was teaching,” Schwartz noted.
The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus will be published by Yale University Press next month.