Written by: Ana Oliveira
Dance is one of the primary techniques of self-expression used by people worldwide. The art form is used to release and relieve thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Originating before the spoken language, dance was a source of human connection with nature and others. Inspired by the sounds of nature, and of their own bodies – including heartbeat – even ancient people of the past started developing communication and sacred movement through the art of dance.
Dance is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Dance is about interpreting and transforming thought and emotion through movement. Like the use of a brush and a canvas or even by the voice and melody; humans have always looked for different ways to express themselves.
Using dance not only as a means of beauty and esthetics, but has also become a revolutionary act. Numerous important names emerge not only in classic styles such as ballet but also in styles that were never seen previously – until these women brought them to life.
Not only did the women who made our list of the Top 10 thrive in their respective industries, but they also left a significant mark on the generations who came after them. As a consequence of this, they continue to serve as a wellspring of encouragement and ideas for budding artists located all over the world.
1. Mademoiselle La Fontaine
Dance style: Ballet | Birthday: 1655 – 1738 | Country: France | Famous For: Being the first professional female dancer
In 1681 she starred in “Le Triomphe de L’amour”, a ballet that marked the beginning of dance as a professional field of art. This also marked the entry of women on stages. Prior to this, men had only been onstage in plays and performances (and they even played as women!).
Mademoiselle da Lafontaine was known for her unique and charming performances, with dance steps choreographed by none other than herself.
2. Isadora Dunkan
Dance style: Modern | Birthday: 03/26/1877 – 09/14/1927 | Country: USA | Famous For: Being the “mother of modern dance”
Isadora Duncan was an extremely important figure in the development of dance throughout history. Her dancing technique and choreography captivate historians to this day. The singular experiences that molded her life, as well as her philosophy and writings on dance and life, have influenced her style and the world.
At a very young age, Isadora taught other kids in her neighborhood to dance. Inspired by nature, she believed that dance was born from freedom. Her theory was that bodies should move according to nature and emotion.
3. Ruth St Denis
Dance style: Modern Freestyle Indian | Birthday: 01/20/1879 – 07/21/1968 | Country: USA | Famous For: Creating a modern dance inspired in Indian culture.
Growing up on her parent’s farm, Ruth developed a passion for nature and spiritual elements. In one of her travels, she got in touch with Ísis– an Egyptian Goddess – and became fascinated by the Indian and Egyptian culture, leading her to create her most famous choreography: Radha.
4. Anna Pavlova
Dance style: Ballet | Birthday: 02/14/1881 – 01/23/1931 | Country: Russia | Famous For: Her expressionism in her performances.
Owner of a unique sensibility and talent, Pavlova is well known for her solos, created especially for her in Dying Swan (1905). Her passion exceeded her body. She was the owner of an incredible body expression in a time when ballet wasn’t meant to be dramatic.
5. Martha Graham
Dance style: Modern | Birthday: 05/11/1894 – 04/01/1991 | Country: USA | Famous For: Creating Graham style in dance and pedagogy
Inspiration in dance and theatre fields, Martha choreographs her moves and classes in order to express true human emotions and behaviors. In 1916, Graham founded a dance school company where she could explore a wide range of dances around the world, including native dances.
6. Josephine Baker
Dance style: Burlesque | Birthday: 06/03/1906 – 04/12/1975 | Country: USA | Famous For: Bringing traditional African culture to her performances
Incorporating African style into her dances, Josephine conquered many fans around the world. She is mainly known for her banana skirt performance. Besides being a fantastic dancer and a noticeable activist, Josephine also assisted France in World War II as a spy.
7. Katherine Dunham
Dance style: Modern | Birthday: 06/22/1909 – 05/21/2006 | Country: USA | Famous For: Integrating Caribbean and African dance into her ballet.
Pioneer in the field of dance anthropology, Katherine had danced as the reason for her life. She created the “Dunham Technique”, which uses African and Caribbean movements and rhythms. Referred to as “dancer Katherine the great” by The Washington Post.
8. María Nieves
Dance style: Tango | Birthday: 06/09/1934 – Nowadays | Country: Argentina | Famous For: Remarkable tango performances around America.
Alongside her partner, Juan Carlos Copes, for 50 years they performed together throughout Latin America and the USA. Although their marriage didn’t last long, María and Copes had synchrony like no other.
9. Márcia Haydée
Dance style: Ballet | Birthday: 04/18/1937 | Country: Brazil | Famous For: Her greatness and versatility on stage.
From Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, to the world, Haydée conquers all the stages she set her foot in. Her most remarkable partnership was with the South African director, John Cranko. Nowadays, she is recognized as one of the biggest dance international references of the XX century.
10. Pina Bausch
Dance style: Modern | Birthday: 07/27/1940 – 06/30/2009 | Country: Germany | Famous For: Embracing sentimental performances.
Director of Tanztheater Wuppertal, Pina Bausch change the traditional style of dance in her country. Bringing many cultural references from her studies in the USA at the age of 19, Pina turned into a reference to other choreographers. She also is a model in the neo-expressionist dance field.
Special Honors: Soheir Zaki
Dance style: Belly dance | Birthday: 04/01/1944 | Country: Egypt | Famous For: Her performances at the cinema as a belly dancer.
Naturally talented, Soheir Zaki got known for a minimalist and ancient style in her belly dance performances. Her talent was recognized to a point that she was invited to over 80 movies in her country.
Just a bit of the greatest…
That was just the tip of the enormous iceberg of talents that the dance industry had and has. Each of these fabulous dancers had their own style and technique. What they all had in common was how they went under the spotlight in order to teach the world that dancing is an art form. Many of those, such as Pavlova and Haydée, inspired not only other dancers but also musicians. These women were muses of their era.
Some of them, such as Josephine Baker, were ethnically fundamental, bringing more diverse representation to worldwide stages. They were responsible not only for bringing joy but for breaking taboos about how bodies should move and look on stage. They showed us how diverse the world can be. They taught us how much a single dance move can display historical and cultural significance.
Even though so different, those amazing ladies have all devoted their hearts and soul to the art of dance. They are an example of how passion can change a life, even an entire nation, and how it can motivate others to do the same for themselves and their community.