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The late Pearl Primus was a dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist who helped bring the beauty of African dance to American audiences. Today is her birthday.

Pearl Eileen Primus was born November 29, 1919 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. In the early ’20’s, her family relocated to New York City. In 1940 while studying at Hunter College, she took up dance and won a scholarship with the left-leaning New Dance Group.

Primus made her proper stage debut in 1943 at the 92nd Street YMHA to put on her first composition, “African Ceremonial.” The following year, she choreographed the dances for Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Armed with a federal grant in 1948, Primus studied dance abroad in the Caribbean and Africa, bringing those styles back to American theaters and performing with own troupe in 1953. That same year, Primus would meet her husband, Percival Borde, and give birth to their only son, who also became a dancer in his mother’s troupe.

In the seventies, Primus continued to teach and perform, eventually earning a doctorate in dance education from New York University. She taught at the university level until her retirement in 1990. She was regarded as a pioneer of African dance and was honored with a National Medal of Arts by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Pearl Primus passed in 1994 at the age of 74.

 

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