in African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, ed. Daniel Schulman (Spertus Museum and Northwester University Press, 2009)
“My feet are again on this earth,” the dancer Pearl Primus exclaimed upon receiving word in May 1948 of the Rosenwald fellowship granted to her, “and my preparations and plans are being made with great care.”i Dancers regularly leap off the ground and Primus was well known for her gravity-defying jumps–but the wonder in Primus’s exclamation expressed another kind of buoyancy: encouragement and financial support to a genre of the arts that was most often fueled by sheer determination. The Julius Rosenwald Fund gave only two grants to dancers: one to Katherine Dunham (officially for her anthropological work) in 1935 and another to Pearl Primus in 1948, the final allotment of its endowment. While the monetary support may have been small, the result was significant, a case of watering seeds that flowered into a garden. Primus’s initial enthusiasm augured this, ending a letter written the same day to a committee member of the Foundation with “P.S. I shall write a book too.”ii She wrote articles, Dunham wrote books, both danced, choreographed, and taught, leaving behind a legacy of artworks, ways of moving, and devotees who enlarged the paths they defined. Dunham and Primus used the monies from the Rosenwald Fund to travel to the Caribbean and Africa and conducted research that forged ties between the forced migration of people from Africa and the willful movement of their bodies. Given the meager support for dance coupled with the active discrimination against African Americans in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Rosenwald Fund’s grants to Dunham and Primus ensured the strengthening of the nascent field of modern dance by the infusion of dance traditions from peoples of the African diaspora.
Born near Chicago in 1909, Katherine Dunham had an unsettling childhood shaped by the early death of her mother. For steadiness and inspiration, she followed her adored brother, a promising philosopher, to the University of Chicago, and immersed herself in anthropology and dance. Not content to ignore one discipline for the other – a bridging move characteristic of her life and her achievements – she determined to find out not only the specific gestures of people’s dances, but the meaning behind the moves. Dunham applied for a Rosenwald grant in November 1934 to pursue this question, asking for support to continue her studies in dance with various teachers in the area and in anthropology at the University of Chicago, working with Robert Redfield and Robert Park. Arguing that modern dancers such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis had only looked to “the Greek and the Oriental,” Dunham claimed that modern dance needed the influence of “the primitive.” She proposed ethnographic work on “Indians and Negroes of America, island peoples, and primitive Africa” with the intention of looking for “principles of technique which are fundamental and universal in character, and to their incorporation into a basic dance form which has not yet been developed by the modernists.”iii
When Dunham received the grant in 1935, she bypassed Native Americans and African Americans to go to Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Martinique. For almost a year, she immersed herself in the rhythms and rituals of the Maroons, the Vodun ceremonies of rural Haiti, and the social dancing of Port au Prince. Melville Herskovits, the anthropologist at Northwestern University who helped with introductions to people there, worried that Dunham had “gone native,” betraying the scientific objectivity he thought necessary to ethnographic research. Instead, Dunham was defining a new mode of “participant-observer,” recognizing and using her subjective stance, dance training, and shared heritage to create more intimate links with others.
Dunham returned to Chicago in 1936 exhilarated. No longer looking to her contemporaries in modern dance for inspiration, she retrieved movement and meaning from the rituals of the Caribbean, melding a Martinique fighting dance with a Creole mazurka, the beguine, and the Cuban habañera in her 1938 L’Ag’Ya, for example. This method of integrating a variety of traditions – modern, ballet, Caribbean and African – formed the basis of her technique and choreography. It also defined a path that other African American dancers such as Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey would follow.
Pearl Primus, in fact, soon paralleled Dunham’s achievements, reinforcing the incorporation of diasporic traditions in American dance. Moving from Trinidad to New York City in 1921, when she was two, Primus first studied to be a doctor but became pulled to dance when looking for jobs in the National Youth Administration of the Works Progress Administration in the late ‘30s. Soon she was performing solo concerts in New York and gathering accolades for her seriousness and talent. Like Dunham, Primus was curious about other movement traditions and first turned her gaze to the American South and then to the traditions of Africa. She applied to the Rosenwald Fund with the intention of interpreting James Weldon Johnson’s collection of sermons in verse, God’s Trombones, developing and training a performance troupe, and continuing graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University – all this to “to dance about the Negro today as a person among persons.”iv By the time the fellowship was granted, she had narrowed down her intentions to one: to know in person what she had learned only through books – to travel to Africa.
Armed with DDT and a gun, Primus traveled for a year in West Africa, journeying to the remote areas of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Angola, Liberia, Senegal, and the Belgian Congo (first Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). She soon was braiding her hair in tribal styles, going bare footed and bare breasted, and consolidating her connections to various Africans with her dancing abilities. Primus was an intimate participant-observer in the mold of Dunham, absorbing movement by holding her body next to a native dancer if she could not pick up the steps by merely watching. In return, the Watusi dancers of the Congo renamed Primus “Omowale,” meaning “child returned home.”
Like Dunham, Primus came back to the U.S. determined to participate in the American dance scene by re-claiming and asserting the heritage of peoples of the African diaspora. Africa had served as a point of origin for other black intellectuals and artists but often as a place to measure the distance that African Americans had traveled in cultural terms. Alain Locke, the rhetorician of the Harlem Renaissance, held up certain of the arts of Africa–especially sculpture–for their elegance of form, but did so to encourage African American artists to apply that elegance to their own artworks (as white modernists were doing) so as to be included in elite institutions. Dunham and Primus, on the other hand, embraced African arts as they were and not as a step toward “white” standards, a distinction that would come to define the Black Arts movement of the 1960s.
Dance — whether in a mural by Aaron Douglas, a sculpture by Richmond Barthe, or a performance by Katherine Dunham– presents the raw flesh, where freedom and restraint collide. In an era that featured both the flamboyance of dance halls and the persistence of lynching, reclaiming the flesh – dancing – transformed the source and brunt of discrimination and torture into the source of joy and liberation. Primus’s gravity-defying leaps exemplified the possibilities. Muscular, confident, and volitional, she soared above the ground as a self-sufficient woman not bound to any man, as a black person in defiance of racism and “white” standards, and across borders from Africa to the U.S. With the crucial help of the Rosenwald Fund, Primus and Dunham defined, articulated, and insisted upon the place of every body in the hope of humanism and the promise of freedom.
i. Pearl Primus to Edwin Embree, 19 May 1948, b.441 f.15, Julius Rosenwald Fund, Fisk University Archives, Nashville, TN [hereafter JRF/FU].
ii. Pearl Primus to Hilde Reitzes, 19 May 1948, b.441 f.15, JRF/FU.
iii. Katherine Dunham’s Application for Fellowship, 19 November 1934, b.409 f.10, JRF/FU.
iv. Application essay of Pearl Eileene Primus, n.d. [early 1947?], b.441 f.15, JRF/FU.
Featured image: Pearl Primus. Credit: Baron—Hulton Archive/Getty Images