The Search for Identity Through Movement: Pearl Primus’s The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Pearl Primus

Like Langston Hughes’s poem, Pearl Primus’s The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a meditation on the African diaspora. Primus’s dance evokes a sense of connection, pride, and strength among peoples of African descent. Students will identify the movements and gestures that help capture the choreographer’s ideas.

Classroom Activities

Discuss: Ask students for their impressions about Primus’s life in New York in the 1930 and 1940s. Primus was both from Trinidad and identified as an African American. How would her experience be different than Graham’s?

Watch: View Primus’s 1944 solo, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Write down initial impressions of the dance and answer the following: What kinds of movements did Primus use in order to capture the images in Hughes’s poem? What kinds of movements did Primus use to create her vision of an American identity? Watch The Negro Speaks of Rivers again using the Movement Analysis Worksheet. Look to identify spatial patterns (for example: straight line, circular, rectangular, lines at right angles), body shapes, and different movement qualities, i.e. light/strong, fast/slow, direct/indirect.



  • Compare and contrast the two ways of observing dance—looking for movement in relationship to meaning and looking for compositional movement elements (floor patterns, shapes, etc).  How do these ways of seeing differ and lead you to different aspects of dance?  How are they complementary?
  • Describe some of the images you found incorporating words from the Movement Analysis exercise.
  • How is this dance like and different from Frontier?
  • What are some of the dance movements and everyday gestures that we associate with African American identity today?
  • What are some of the ways that a single ethnic group’s movement patterns become a part of the lives of all Americans?

Write: After reading the chapter on Pearl Primus from John O. Perpener’s African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, Langston Hughes’s poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and Pearl Primus’s “My Statement,” write down ideas about what life might have been like for Primus growing up in the United States in the 1930s. If you need to, do a little research about America in the 1930s, especially the Harlem Renaissance.

Pearl Primus: Speak to Me of Rivers. Photographed by Barbara Morgan in 1944

Expand: Research the Great Depression. Be sure to look at photographs taken during this period, for example images by photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. How would you describe the people in these photographs?

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