The Dance Claimed Me: a Biography of Pearl Primus by Peggy & Murray Schwartz (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2011, pp. 324; ISBN 987-0-300-15534-1).
Pearl Primus, dancer, choreographer, activist and scholar, could not have been more aptly named--several times. Born Pearl Eileene Primus in 1919 (sources vary) in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Dr. Primus (as students and colleagues called her)/Miss Primus (as many dancers still call her/ Mna (as others were invited to call her: "mother who did not birth you") was, like the gem, valued for her luster. She was precious and valuable, "a virtuous or highly esteemed person; a fine example or type." Even the earliest, now obsolete ocular-related definitions of "pearl" apply to her as a lens focusing on the best of our cultures and the worst of our society. This perspective is from the classical Latin word "primus," meaning first. Lists of "firsts"--like being declared a man by a Watusi chief, or being invited home to dinner by a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (p. 219)-can be both tedious and problematic, but Omowale ("Child Returned Home," the name the venerated Oni of Ife, spiritual leader of the Yoruba), was irrefutably one of a kind. Peggy and Murray Schwartz caringly cast this Pearl of great price before us in their The Dance Claimed Me: a Biography of Pearl Primus.
There is a surprising paucity of detailed documentation about Pearl Primus. The sketchy accounts that do exist rarely go into the depths of her personal battles or the breadth of her achievements in the arts and in education. While The Dance Claimed Me gives an unprecedented basic biographical accounting of "who, what, when, where, how" and even multiple "whys," these details are mere portals into the true life of Pearl Primus, the true premise of the book. Peggy and Murray Schwartz spent many intimate hours with Miss Primus, particularly during her later years. They acknowledge that the book was taking shape and evolving since 1995 with conscious dedication since 2003 (p. 6).
In the spirit and tradition of the West African griot, and consistent with the transcendent spirit of Miss Primus and her life, the Schwartzes succinctly state that the subject of the book is how she "went beyond" to create "another perspective" (p. 2). The Dance Claimed Me goes beyond the basic facts to reveal the person, Pearl Primus.
Following the tone-setting "Introduction," the book is divided into eleven chapters that chronicle Miss Primus's life from her birth in Laventille, a poor neighborhood in Port of Spain, to her death in her New Rochelle, New York, home and the scattering of her ashes off the easternmost tip of Barbados. "The ashes were released and formed themselves in a straight line -pointing straight to Africa" (p. 247). The acknowledgment section then precedes two appendices titled "Pearl Primus Timeline," and "Interviews." In the "A Note on Sources and Documentation" section the authors briefly describe the variety of sources upon which they relied, including their own personal knowledge and experiences. The "Notes," "Works Cited," and "Index" sections conclude the book. An exciting, compact 16-page photo gallery is placed in the middle of the book between pages132-133. These photos are particularly helpful in transporting the reader into the world of the book--"the dance," the Pearl.
The titles of the chapters concisely reveal their contents. The first chapter, "From Laventille to Camp Wo-Chi-Ca," discusses Miss Primus' life from her birth in Trinidad through her working as a dance counselor at a rural New Jersey camp (Camp Wo-Chi-Ca) in the early 1940s. The social environment at the camp supports the interracial bonding that is at the core of much of her future life and work. It is here where she enters a circle of left-wing artists who help to shape American culture in the mid-20th Century. However, while artistically invigorating, these associations will later cause her problems. …