Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham were both pioneering dancers, choreographers teachers and anthropologists who created synergy between dance cultures from Africa, the West Indies and the U.S. as a means to build a greater understanding of the importance relevance, power and intelligence of African dance.
The twists, turns, falls, jumps and reaches in Pearl Primus’s works, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Strange Fruit,” were infused with the truth, sadness, pain and suffering that she witnessed when she worked as a sharecropper in 1944 to study work, family and church life in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Katherine Dunham’s travels to Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti allowed her to study the roots of black dance, both sacred and secular. By combining movements from the Caribbean and European classical ballet, she revolutionized dance in America in the creation of the Dunham technique which is taught in many dance schools today.
In addition to increasing their knowledge and understanding of cultures whose work and rhythms they were recreating for the stage, they both understood the need for the unifying fabric of dance, music and visual art in the black community to help renew courage, pride and strength help to fight for democracy.
Carmen De Lavallade, who along with Janet Collins, worked with the Metropolitan Opera, dancing as the prima ballerina in Samson and Delilah and Aida. Ms. De Lavallade has danced with and choreographed for many companies including Lester Horton Dance Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Philadanco and Dance Theatre of Harlem. She and her husband, the late Geoffrey Holder, had a partnership and artistic legacy that lasted over 60 years. Most recently, she toured her show, As I Remember It, throughout the United States.
I was excited to be among the performers who honored these women and other trailblazers in American dance and music on Thursday, March 10 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre in NYC.