Pearl Primus was a member of the New Dance Group where she was encouraged by its socially and politically active members to develop her early solo dances dealing with the plight of African Americans in the face of racism. Strange Fruit (1945), a piece in which a woman reflects on witnessing a lynching, used the poem by the same name by Abel Meeropol (publishing as Lewis Allan). Hard Time Blues (1945) comments on the poverty of African American sharecroppers in the South.
Watch: View Strange Fruit and Hard Time Blues. Ask students to observe with the following in mind: What movement elements do you see in the dances: 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? How does Primus express themes of social commentary and protest in her work? What gestures does she use? How do the movement elements support the meanings of these dances?
Discuss: What do Primus’s dances tell us about 1940s America? Comment on the irony of Americans fighting to liberate Europeans during World War II, while racism continued in America.
Compare: Can you isolate and describe the differences between Primus’s and Graham’s dance expressions of social commentary and protest themes?
Move: Set up a movement experience that allows students to explore gestures and movement qualities present in Primus’s work and that students might relate to contemporary protest. This might be done through a technique class, improvisation, or dance making experience.
Read: Read the information on Pearl Primus from Margaret Lloyd’s chapter “New Leaders—New Directions” from The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. Do some research on America in the 1940s and list some events important to African Americans in the 1940s.
Expand: Can you think of examples of social commentary and protest as reflected in popular culture today? Bring in examples of contemporary artists who use details from their lives—their experiences, their travels, their personal relationships—as inspiration for the creation of their music, visual art, literature and poetry, or dance.
Connect: You might also create a project that asks students to interview senior members of their community and collect oral histories of the Great Depression.
Research: Find American literature that reflects themes of social and political protest. Poetry is a good choice to focus on since that is the literary form Primus drew upon to inspire several of her dances.