Pearl Primus collection, 1920-1994
Navigate the Collection
- Primus, Pearl
- Pearl Primus (1919-1994) was an African-American dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and teacher. Collection includes materials created or collected by Primus and by others dating from circa 1920 to 1994, including correspondence, writings, legal documents, research and teaching materials, clippings, programs, printed materials, photographs, sound recordings, films, videos, and artifacts.
- 20.4 Linear Feet
- Material in English
- Collection ID:
- Scope and content:
Collection includes materials created or collected by Primus and by others dating from circa 1920 to 1994, including correspondence, writings, legal documents, research and teaching materials, clippings, programs, printed materials, photographs, sound recordings, films, videos, and artifacts.
- Biographical / historical:
Pearl Primus (1919-1994) was an African-American dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and teacher. She was born in Trinidad in 1919 and raised in New York City, where she attended Hunter High School from 1933 to 1937. Primus received her BA in biology from Hunter College in 1940, where she had been preparing for a career in medicine. Her career goals changed, however, when she began dancing with the New Dance Group, an integrated, politically progressive dance collective. Primus made her professional dance debut in New York City in 1943. She began performing at the Café Society, an integrated nightclub, and in 1944 she gave her first solo recital, performing to poetry and the music of folksinger Josh White. Later that year she traveled the American South, where she worked as a cotton-picker in order to learn more about the plight of African-Americans in the region, an experience that later inspired several dances.
In 1946 Primus took graduate classes in education at Columbia University and performed professionally with her own company and with the New York revival of Showboat and the Chicago Civic Opera production of The Emperor Jones. In 1949, Primus traveled to Africa on a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. She lived with tribes in Nigeria and the Belgian Congo, among others, observing and recording African dances, ceremonies, and other cultural activities and aspects of society.
In August 1950 Primus married Yael Woll and formally enrolled at Columbia University. She toured internationally with her company and as a solo artist, performing in England for King George IV and Queen Mary in 1951, at the inauguration of Liberian President William V. S. Tubman in 1952, and with her company in Israel and France in 1952.
In early 1953 Primus separated from Woll. The following summer, Primus continued her studies of dance in Trinidad and met dancer and choreographer Percival Borde. They married in 1954, and Primus gave birth to their son, Onwin, in January 1955. Primus and Borde continued to perform and teach together until Borde's death in 1979.
Primus received her MA in educational sociology from New York University and was awarded a grant from the Rebecca Harkness Foundation to study in Africa in 1959. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1963, Primus founded the Primus-Borde School of Dance, where she developed methods of cross-cultural education through dance. Primus tested these methods in New York City elementary schools from 1965 through 1968 and published her findings for the U.S. Department of Education in 1968. Her phonograph record, Pearl Primus' Africa, was recorded to assist teachers in elementary and high schools.
In 1969, while pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at NYU, Primus was appointed professor at Hunter College. In asserting that dance was an international language, Primus became the first NYU student to use dance to fulfill the language requirement. After completing her dissertation on the use of sculpture to acculturate children in the Mano tribe of Liberia, Primus received her PhD in anthropology in 1978. She began the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute to promote her blending of African-American, Caribbean, and African influences with modern dance and ballet techniques. Percival Borde died on August 31, 1979 in New York.
Primus was appointed director of the Cora P. Maloney College at State University of New York-Buffalo in 1982, where she taught for two years. From 1984 to 1990, Primus served as a professor of ethnic studies and artist-in-residence at the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts. In the following years, Primus was in residency at Howard University, taught at NYU, and worked towards the founding of the Pearl Primus Dance Arts Foundation.
Primus received many awards, including a Star of Africa decoration from the Liberian government and the Scroll of Honor from the National Council of Negro Women. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush awarded Primus the National Medal of Arts for "outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States." Primus' other awards include the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of American Anthropologists in 1985, an honorary doctorate from Spelman College in 1988, the American Dance Festival's first Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Chair for Distinguished Teaching in 1991 and, posthumously, the American Dance Festival/Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement in Choreography. Primus died in New Rochelle, NY, in 1994.
- Acquisition information:
- The Pearl Primus Collection was received by the American Dance Festival Archives as gifts in 2000.
- Processing information:
Processed by American Dance Festival Archives Staff, October 2004
Encoded by Dean Jeffrey, November 2007
Accessions were merged into one collection, described in this finding aid.
The Pearl Primus Collection is organized into eight series: Correspondence, Subject Files, Dissertation Materials, Printed Materials, Photographs, Moving Images, Sound Recordings, and Artifacts.
- Physical location:
- For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the ADF Archives.
- Rules or conventions:
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Click on terms below to find related finding aids on this site. For other related materials in the Duke University Libraries, search for these terms in the Catalog.
Using These Materials
- Using These Materials Links:
Using These Materials
Collection is open for research.
Please contact the American Dance Festival Archives (email@example.com) to arrange for use of these materials.
Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.
Access to film, videotapes, or audiotapes in this collection requires the use of reference copies. To arrange for the creation of reference copies, if none exist, please contact American Dance Festival Archives.
- Terms of access:
Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
- Before you visit:
- Materials from the ADF Archives may be viewed by appointment in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University. Visits may be arranged in advance by contacting the ADF archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visitors will need to comply with Duke's registration and security policies.
- Preferred citation:
[Identification of item], Pearl Primus Collection, American Dance Festival Archives.