Pearl Primus was the first African-American modern dancer. Throughout her career, Primus used her craft to express social ills in United States’ society. In 1919, Primus was born and her family immigrated to Harlem from Trinidad. While studying anthropology at Columbia University, Primus began her career in the theatre as an understudy for a performance group with the National Youth Administration. Within a year, she received a scholarship from New Dance Group and continued to develop her craft.
In 1943, Primus performed Strange Fruit. It was her first performance and included no music but the sound of an African-American man being lynched. According to John Martin of The New York Times, Primus’ work was so great that she was “entitled to a company of her own.”
Primus continued to study anthropology and researched dance in Africa and its Diaspora. Throughout the 1940s, Primus continued to incorporate the techniques and styles of dance found in the Caribbean and several west African countries. One of her most famous dances was known as the Fanga.
She went on to study for a PhD and did research on dance in Africa, spending three years on the continent learning native dances. When Primus returned, she performed many of these dances to audiences throughout the world. Her most famous dance was the Fanga, an African dance of welcome which introduced traditional African dance to the stage.
One of Primus’ most notable students was writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
Considered a pioneer in African-American styles of dance, Katherine Dunham used her talent as an artist and academic to show the beauty of African-American forms of dance.
Dunham made her debut as a performer in 1934 in the Broadway musical Le Jazz Hot and Tropics. In this performance, Dunham introduced audiences to a dance called L’ag’ya, based on a dance developed by enslaved Africans ready to revolt against society. The musical also featured early African-American forms of dance such as the Cakewalk and Juba.