Awesome Female Dancers who Made Dance History

Today, it's all about the ladies! This weekend is the Women's March on Washington, where thousands of women (and people who love them) will gather to "fight bigotry and discrimination... and lift up the voices of women who are too often left out." In honor of this cause, we've put together a list of our favorite female dancers who made an impact on dance history.

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker is credited as being one of the first African-American female entertainers in history. She was born Freda Josephine McDonald, but eventually changed her name after renouncing her American citizenship and moving to Paris. Nicknamed "Black Pearl" and "Bronze Venus," she rose to fame as a performer first in the clubs in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, and then as a performer in the famed Folies Bergère. Baker quickly became a symbol of the Jazz Age in the 1920's, and was particularly well-known for her tendency to perform partially nude onstage (with perhaps her most memorable outfit being her skirt made out of sixteen bananas). She was also one of the first women of color to star in a feature film, entitled ZouZou (1934). 

She's wasn't just awesome because of her incredible flair, charisma, and dancing ability - she actually worked as a French Resistance agent during World War II, working secretly against the Nazi regime by smuggling secret messages on music sheets. She was also an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and refused to perform for segregated audiences when she toured to the United States. Talk about a cool lady!

Margot Fonteyn
Margot Fonteyn

Margot Fonteyn

Dame Margot Fonteyn is one of the most famous British ballerinas of the twentieth century, and a true female powerhouse in the world of ballet. She studied ballet around the world, including in Shanghai, China, and England at the Sadler's Wells School. Her breakout role was with the Vic-Wells Ballet, and her 1939 performance of Aurora is still considered to be one of the most iconic of the time period. She joined the Royal Ballet and spent many years as Rudolph Nureyev's dance partner, dancing all of the major ballets, like Swan Lake and Romeo & Juliet.

She is also known as one of the muses for the great choreographer Frederick Ashton, who created roles for her in works such as Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Symphonic Variations. Her dancing was particularly memorable because of her ability to create a near perfect line, as well as her ability to interpret a role to its full emotional capacity. 

Pina Bausch
Pina Bausch

Pina Baush

You might recognize this name from the 2011 German documentary film by Wim Wenders. And while it's a fabulous film that features some truly stunning dance performances, the truth is that there's so much more to Pina than they could possibly depict in one movie. Born in 1940, she studied at the Folkwang School under Kurt Jooss (most famous for his political work The Green Table). She became the choreographer of Tanztheater Wuppertal, which would eventually become Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

Pina revolutionized the dance industry by bringing a style of dance known as Tanztheater, or dance theater, to the world stage. Unlike some other forms of dance, Tanztheater focuses on referencing reality, even if it's not particularly theatrical or glamorous, often without a clear narrative. It also often combines different mediums, including speaking, singing, theater, and props. Despite her death in 2009, her work continued on, with her company still performing and touring. 

Eleanor Powell
Eleanor Powell

Eleanor Powell

We couldn't make a list of fabulous female dancers without including a hoofer! Tapper and actress Eleanor Powell got her start performing in Atlantic City clubs and on the Broadway stage in the early twentieth century. She made her first film debut as a featured dancer in George White's Scandals. She quickly became one of the best known performers in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer catalog, performing in a series of musical films throughout the 1940's and 1950's. She starred alongside some of the most famous leading men of her time, including Fred Astaire, George Murphy, and James Stewart. And if that wasn't enough for this lady, she was awarded the title of World's Greatest Tap Dancer by the Dance Masters of America in 1965. 

Leslie Carron
Leslie Carron

Leslie Caron

I may be a bit biased here, but I had to include her in this article because she's my favorite ever (and not just because I wrote her a fan letter when I was 12 and she sent me back a lovely signed photo of her in rehearsal!). I really think that she was one of the first women to really bring ballet to American audiences on the big screen. Born in 1931, she started ballet at a young age and eventually became a member of Roland Petit's company Ballet des Champs Elysées. There, she was spotted by legendary dancer and movie star Gene Kelly, who offered her a role in An American in Paris (winner of six Academy awards, including Best Picture in 1952). The film features a sixteen-minute long ballet sequence, as well as plenty of other dance numbers throughout where Leslie shows off her gorgeous technique.  Though she transitioned to more acting-heavy roles, such as Gigi and Lili, she also showed off her dancing chops at Fred Astaire's partner in the 1955 film Daddy Long Legs. She's truly one of the legends of the dance film industry.

About the author

Anne Luben has performed works by notable choreographers such as Donald McKayle, Bill T. Jones, Jiri Kylian, Idan Cohen, Alex Ketley, and Summer Lee Rhatigan, among others.