The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus

The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus

by Peggy Schwartz, Murray Schwartz


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"Why do I dance? Dance is my medicine. It’s the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustration common to all human beings who because of race, creed, or color, are ‘invisible’. Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice."—Pearl Primus

"A revelation of one woman’s life, a celebration of Black beauty, and a pleasure to read, The Dance Claimed Me is required reading for anyone interested in one twentieth-century Black woman trailblazer’s story."—Eisa Nefertari Ulen, The Crisis

Pearl Primus (1919–1994) blazed onto the dance scene in 1943 with stunning works that incorporated social and racial protest into their dance aesthetic. In The 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 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 and Paul Robeson.

For The Dance Claimed Me, the Schwartzes interviewed more than a hundred of Primus's family members, friends, and fellow artists—among them Maya Angelou, Geoffrey Holder, Judith Jamison, Donald McKayle, and Archbishop Granville Williams—to create a vivid portrayal of a life filled with passion, drama, determination, fearlessness, and brilliance.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300187939
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,099,963
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Peggy Schwartz is professor emeritus of dance and former director of the dance program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Murray Schwartz is former dean of humanities and fine arts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He teaches literature at Emerson College.

Read an Excerpt

The Dance Claimed Me

A Biography of Pearl Primus
By Peggy Schwartz Murray Schwartz


Copyright © 2011 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15643-0

Chapter One

From Laventille to Camp Wo-Chi-Ca

    Hold fast to dreams
    For when dreams die
    Life is a broken-winged bird
    That cannot fly.

    Hold fast to dreams
    For when dreams go
    Life is a barren field
    Frozen with snow.
    —Langston Hughes

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." 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 in a home," she said, "where discussions about Africa were everyday occurrences. My father and uncles had been in various countries of Africa, either as merchant seamen or as soldiers." Her strong identification with her African heritage became the bedrock of her work.

Along with her Ashanti heritage, there was another, converging lineage, one that Pearl rarely spoke of, yet near the end of her life she exclaimed, "I know all about Yom Kippur. I had a Jewish grandfather." Her son, Onwin, said that Pearl's paternal grandfather fled Germany in the late nineteenth century to escape persecution, became an indentured servant, later escaped and became a pirate, and eventually joined the Merchant Marines. At the same time, Onwin claimed that "Herr Primus was a rabbi, a very upper-class, Ashkenazi Jew." Onwin loved to tell stories, and the details of this genealogy may well be fictional, though Pearl did seek the support of Jewish men throughout her life.

In all likelihood, Pearl's father, Edward, was born in Bogles, Carriacou, an island in the Grenadines, and, as a young man, moved to Trinidad to get work. According to Loris Primus, Pearl's first cousin, he was probably a carpenter or tradesperson while they lived in Trinidad, but he had become a merchant seaman at the time the family moved to New York. The original family in Carriacou was a large one, and Onwin said that his grandfather had seven or eight brothers in Trinidad. Loris described a whole other set of Primus relatives from the Grenadines, particularly Carriacou. Latir Primus, a second cousin, said that there are Primuses in Granada, Trinidad, Aruba, and Carriacou, and he recounted numerous names for each family member, which makes it challenging to trace this family tree. According to voodoo belief, hiding one's real name protects one from evildoers, Loris explained. "One brother's name was General, who was also called Alfred. Uncle Darling's name is Conrad. There's Adam known as Herbert, Newton known as Tano, and Dalvon whose name is Wilpot. And then there was Royal. I believe Royal is actually the same one who is Pearl's father. There's a sister Lillian called Calla Lily," and on it goes. "You can go an entire lifetime and not know a person's real name," Loris said.

In the island cultures, voodoo beliefs coexisted with colonial styles, and Onwin remembered his grandmother as a "very Victorian lady." "I never saw my grandmother without full makeup, hair done, coiffed and everything else." Pearl's childhood friend Frances Charles said, "Mrs. Primus was the nicest person I ever met, a jewel." Pearl would later tell the dance critic Margaret Lloyd that "her mother was such a beautiful social dancer that she was called the Queen." Yet, much later, speaking in an interview at the University of Michigan, Pearl said that her parents were "horrified of dance." When her mother said that "exposure of limbs would close doors," Pearl replied, "I'll knock them down!"

The family moved to New York when Pearl was around two, at the peak of the first wave of emigrating West Indians, her father arriving first. Pearl, her mother, and her younger brother, Edward, followed the father, whom another childhood friend, Sophie Johnson Charles, remembered as "cold and distant." Pearl's second brother, Carl, was born in New York, the first American Primus.

In New York, West Indians were segregated by race but integrated by ethnicity and class. Langston Hughes described them as "warm, rambunctious, sassy ... little pockets of tropical dreams on their tongues." Already in the 1920s Trinidadians in New York were celebrating Carnival, and ballroom dances were carried over from the islands. The Primus family settled in this West Indian world within a segregated black world. They lived at West Sixty-ninth Street and Broadway, where her father worked as a building superintendent. Onwin said that in New York, Pearl's father got a job shoveling coal for ninety-eight cents a week and his grandmother took in washing. The family moved around a lot until they got to Hell's Kitchen in about 1930 or 1931. A few years later, they moved to 536 Madison Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a building that remains in the family to this day. Onwin described a shield that used to be on the door on the second floor of the house, reflecting part of the Primus clan's heritage. It read, "No retreat, no surrender, in victory or in death." To help pay for the house, Pearl's parents had to rent out the top floor. In order to have a space for the three kids, her father sectioned off the living room to create very small bedrooms.

Racially, in America West Indians came to be considered "black." "Caribbean New Yorkers of the 1920s and 1930s might have been immigrants in a city of immigrants, but it was race that structured their life chances. Being black determined where they lived and could not live, where they could and could not go to school, what type of job they could get and the way they were treated by Americans of all color," writes historian Philip Kasinitz.

For West Indians, the advantages of economic upward mobility were often ironically accompanied by downward mobility in social status, a dilemma that the second generation would strive to overcome. Of Pearl's generation, Kasinitz observes, "Their primary interests were in pushing back the limits on opportunities imposed on the entire black community, limits that chafed them more than their parents." Reflecting on the community's family life, Pearl's student and lifelong friend Mary Waithe said, "You had to go to school, you had to get a good education, you didn't play in the streets all night, you were very strict. They used to call the West Indians 'the black Jews' because they could save their money." In fact, the Primus family had become Episcopalians, attending church once in a while.

Sophie Charles Johnson described life in the neighborhood and its very precise boundaries. She and Pearl met when they were six-year-old public school students at P. S. 94 on Amsterdam Avenue. On Wednesday afternoons the bus would pick them up and take them to the church on Sixty-fifth Street and Central Park West for Bible class. Their parents would give them some pennies for the church plate, but they would always hold back a few for a visit to the candy store after class, before heading over to Central Park.

Pearl and Sophie had a German friend, Gertrude Ederle, who would later become the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Once, when Pearl's brother Eddy joined them, Gertrude's father intruded and said, "Who is this black so and so? I don't want that monkey in here." Sophie and Pearl stood up to the father. "If he's not allowed in here, then we're not allowed in here. Come on Pearl, let's go." Young kids were expected to stay in their own neighborhoods. Sophie recalled ethnic concentrations, with Italians on Sixty-ninth Street between West End Avenue and the Hudson River, Irish on Sixty-eighth Street, Germans on Sixty-seventh. West End north of Seventy-second was mainly Jewish, blacks were on Sixty-third, Sixty-second, and down. "But if one of our fathers took us out it was different," Sophie said. They could eat food cooked only in their own homes, and their fathers would watch them returning from school on the corner of Sixty-eighth and Amsterdam. They sometimes had fights with kids at school, and they fought back. They could have friends in the house but couldn't go out. When it was time for Pearl to go home, her parents came for her, and Sophie's mother would drop a key out a window so they could come up and retrieve their daughter. The girls were separated when Pearl went to junior high school, but the friendship continued throughout their lives.

In a 1985 Hampshire College commencement address, Pearl reimagined a house she lived in on 117th Street in East Harlem, the last house before the East River. (She said that ultimately the house wasn't torn down, "it fell down.") She described how she sat on the curb by her house, dangling her bare feet in the rainwater that ran through the gutter. As the drainage water flowed over them, her imagination soared.

The water brought down old pieces of crumbled paper, nasty paper, old cigarette butts, old dirt piling up on the side of her feet.... [T]he pages of great books were made from those dirty pieces of paper. The cigarette butts became logs, logs for great houses, for palaces, for sculpture. That dirt piling up, against her feet became paths, mountains, valleys that she could walk through, deserts that she could traverse, mountains she would climb. This little girl sat dangling, dreaming of tomorrow. The greatest books of the world ... she studied from those pieces of paper. And the log cabins and the palaces and the sculpture, and the roads. Roads into the homes of the worlds' people. Roads to the shrines and altars. Roads to the podium for all kinds of honor ... I knew this girl, for I am she ... I've fallen through the cracks, bruised my knee, banged my head. I've faced prejudice, hatred, anger, defeat of all kinds, yet I made it to the top. This is my message to you.

Donald McKayle, also of West Indian heritage, recalled a tight-knit community organized "along class lines and highly social." The primacy of racial discriminations was an American, not Trinidadian, adaptation. Loris confirmed that within the West Indian community, one didn't feel limited by the color of one's skin. You didn't grow up "hearing the [racial] drumbeats every day" and that "if you are black, you are inferior. You grew up with a different expectation. I was actually in my twenties before I had my first dream where I could identify people in colors. I didn't see people in color because in my upbringing you didn't have to deal with differentiating people in colors. Education was seen as the key, like a drumbeat over and over."

Pearl followed that drumbeat with a passion that characterized everything she did. With her parents' support, which sometimes evoked the envy of her brothers, she seized the opportunities presented to her and, from early on, strove to leap beyond assigned places. She excelled both athletically and intellectually. She was one of the few black students to attend Hunter College High School and Hunter College, both selective institutions. With her powerful legs, she was a winning athlete, setting records in the high jump and broad jump, and she was a star sprinter. She became an avid reader and writer. Evelyn Karlin, a friend and fellow dancer at Hunter High, remembers Pearl as "bubbly, cheerful, and with a wonderful sense of humor," but she could also be moody and introspective. Above all, she was ambitious, and determined to surmount obstacles.

In high school, Pearl began to develop her style as a writer. A teacher commented on an essay titled "A Typical Doctor," "Content good but 'ware those honeyed phrases," but this was not a criticism that Pearl took to heart. Rather, over the course of her life, she developed her natural eloquence, a gift for spontaneous, surprising phrases, and a musician's ear for the rhythms of speech. Another admonition she received—not to write in turquoise ink—was also disregarded. Long after high school she composed journals and letters in her favorite ink.

At about age fifteen, while a student at Hunter High, Pearl created for her teacher Mrs. Edna Flouton a collection of poetry dated August–November 1934. On the cover, over a drawing of a nature scene, she wrote, "By The Tree Worshiper, Pearl Eileene Primus." A dedication, "To Mrs. Edna Flouton also a Tree Lover," is followed by a prose introduction, "God's Garden," and fifteen original poems, as well as a poem by the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine and accompanied by Pearl's "very free translation."

In her poetry she identifies strongly with nature along with her urban environment, writing about palm trees, oak trees, lime trees, weeping willows, and more, as well as about the wind, the moon, and the elements, but also about the BMT subway and the rules of the playground. She invokes God as revealed in the natural world and is not afraid to address God directly. She muses on life and on her own death, her work reflecting a familiarity with romantic poetry, which was emphasized at Hunter High in this period.

The seeds of Pearl's writings on Africa, the mountains, the earth, and the sea are embedded in these poems. Much later Pearl wrote, "The earth is a magic dancer," as she describes the African soil. Here we have a palm tree described as "the dark sentinel of earth and sky"("Palm Tree"),and the imagination as "the sunset wings of fantasy" ("O Come"). There are many invocations, Pearl's youthful prayers to God, expressed through poetry and through the natural environment, always with a bit of ironic distance. After each poem, each arc of life and death, natural cycles, Greek references, and experimentation with form, there's a note on the bottom of the page, a running commentary on her own work. Following "The Weeping Willow," she writes, "As the B.M.T. rises into the air, the traveler can see this cemetery, and though the whistles deafen him, the dead sleep on in peace." "Watch your trees defy the rain! It's very amusing," she comments on "The Rain and My Cedar Tree." Each handwritten poem has its own page, as Pearl plays with visual design and patterning.

A sample from "The Tree Worshiper" illustrates the allegorical idealizations of her adolescent writing. In "God's Garden" she wrote, "God makes His garden one of perfect beauty, and he revels in his handiwork. At morn, the mountain kings wrap themselves in the blue smoky veil of dawn, and the chirping birds rise into the air to praise their maker with song.... He that planteth a seed is a servant of God, and unknown generations shall rise and bless him." Pearl's evocation of nature hints at sublime experience and imbues the trees with the rhythms of dance. She imagines building her home "Among a thousand haughty trees / Their awful arms spread wide in prayer," and resting in death "beneath a weeping willow tree.... Beside a laughing river where the trees / Make mock'ry of their quivering dancing shapes."

Between August 1937 and January 1939, Pearl wrote many letters to a dear friend and confidant, "My Dear Miss Mage." Pearl was eighteen or nineteen, a student at Hunter College, and Lily Mage was a high school teacher with whom she had a mentor-student relationship. The letters reveal her young character, almost as if she were aware that these might become part of an epistolary biography. They express her range of imagination as well as the rhythms of life of a serious, young woman supported by her home life in her educational goals and dreams. They introduce Pearl's storytelling style, her calculated use of expressive language and ever-present humor. When a girl enters the office at Hunter where Pearl is working and demands a folder for her diploma, she is "just chilled to my toe nails.... My words feel like icicles which clip off sharply from empty branches on cold days."

Pearl expresses devotion to her family, but also reveals the turmoil of her youthful energy. Of her temper she says, "The eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius would sound like a soft breeze compared to this.... I should have been christened Stubborn Primus." "You know when I receive my PhD in Biology I shall betake myself to all countries of the globe just to see the rising and setting sun.... After my vacation ... I shall settle down and become a surgeon." Yet, amid many ambitions, dance emerges as a growing interest. "Did I tell you I have a double minor now? Well, I have. The new one is Physical Ed. I can hardly wait to start it in the fall. I'll be taking Dancing, apparatus, fencing, basketball and tennis next term. Swimming if I can get it. I'd love to specialize in the dancing but it is not stressed more than the others."

She asks Miss Mage about herself and then describes how she feels about studying. As in her poems, the experience of space is central to her imagination. "Why have you been so silent? Don't tell me that like me you have been sunk down into the great abyss of study—finding it at one time too small to hold you—feeling you must escape or be crushed by its firm walls—then at other times it becomes too large—making you smaller than an atom of air. Swamped in the mud of cruel tests which seem to accomplish no more than worrying us—(you know how a cat worries a helpless mouse) I am unable to think. Really sometimes I have so much to do, I just curl up on the floor, haul out an old magazine and read." She mentions gaining weight after vacations but notes that "gym is slimming."


Excerpted from The Dance Claimed Me by Peggy Schwartz Murray Schwartz Copyright © 2011 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 From Laventille to Camp Wo-Chi-Ca 11

2 A Life in Dance 29

3 African Transformations 69

4 Teaching, Traveling, and the FBI 99

5 Trinidad Communities 116

6 Return to Africa 142

7 The PhD 156

8 The Turn to Teaching and Return to the Stage 169

9 Academic Trials and Triumphs 200

10 Transmitting the Work 218

11 Barbados: Return to the Sea 236

Acknowledgments 249

Appendix I Pearl Primus Timeline 253

Appendix II Interviews 283

A Note on Sources and Documentation 287

Notes 289

Works Cited 299

Index 305

What People are Saying About This

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Peggy and Murray have taken the great, complicated life and legacy of Pearl Primus and given us a way to learn, breathe and feel Pearl's life journey. It reads like a mystery novel, turning and churning at unexpected moments. Dance scholars, African American historians and lovers of dance will all inhale this book.—Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Founder and Artistic Director of Urban Bush Women

Molefi Kete Asante

Peggy and Murray Schwartz have written a bold biography of one of the most important figures in American dance. Pearl Primus almost single-handedly lifted African dance to the American stage and gave the world her magic in a daring creativity sustained by a sheer love of movement. This book should be read by anyone seeking to understand modern dance traditions.—Molefi Kete Asante, author of The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony

Chuck Davis

Pearl Primus was a cauldron of creativity. When she danced she allowed us to share her soul. Peggy and Murray Schwartz celebrate one of the most fantastic beings to set rhythms on the sacred ground called Earth.—Chuck Davis, Founder and Artistic Director of the African American Dance Ensemble

Sonia Sanchez

In The Dance Claimed Me, we see Pearl Primus dancing a dance performed only by Watusi men. We see her electrifying performance at the first Negro rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where she became moon and prayer. Rain. Thunder. Light on the world stage. We feel the pulse of this twentieth century African-American woman claiming the dance of her people for all people and we chant Amen. Amen. A woman. A woman.—Sonia Sanchez, author of Morning Haiku

Ekwueme Michael Thelwell

The Dance Claimed Me is at once an invaluable contribution to the cultural history of American dance as well as a scintillating account of an extraordinary life. As dancer, a force majeure; as choreographer, a culturally groundbreaking and influential innovator; as devotee and tireless teacher of traditional African cultural values, Mama Pearl Primus was the embodiment of black consciousness and womanhood at its very best. All of which emerges powerfully from these pages.—Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, author of The Harder They Come

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