These Women Shaped the Dance Industry As We Know It
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
For the month of March, our studio featured 10 of some of the most groundbreaking women in dance.
We're celebrating their accomplishments for Women's History Month, and you can reference this blog for inspiration beyond the month of March. They are worth learning about!
The impact these changemakers made has been felt by the world and in our own studio. These bios give a glimpse into their careers, but we would encourage you to look them up and continue learning even more about their immense bodies of work.
Without further ado, here are our 10 (current) favorite women in dance:
Twyla Tharp is a force in the industry. As stated on her website:
“Since graduating from Barnard College in 1963, Ms. Tharp has choreographed more than one hundred sixty works: one hundred twenty-nine dances, twelve television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows, and two figure skating routines.
She received one Tony Award, two Emmy Awards, nineteen honorary doctorates, the Vietnam Veterans of America President's Award, the 2004 National Medal of the Arts, the 2008 Jerome Robbins Prize, and a 2008 Kennedy Center Honor. Her many grants include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.”
As if her credits didn’t prove it, she has a style that is easily recognizable in the dance industry. She is known for her technical precision, creativity, wit, and a ‘streetwise nonchalance’. She doesn’t strictly stick to one dance form- Tharp is known for combining different styles such as ballet, jazz, modern dance, and even boxing!
Twyla Tharp also founded her own dance company: Twyla Tharp Dance. Since 1965 she has been choreographing for her own company (founded only two years after graduating from Barnard College in 1963), but her talents don’t stop there. She has also choreographed for The Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, The Boston Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Martha Graham Dance Company, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, and Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
She has had her work featured both on Broadway stages, dance television programs, and Hollywood screens. Tharp has had work in shows like Singin’ In The Rain, Movin’ Out, and Come Flye Away, among others. Films that feature her work include Amadeus, Hair, White Nights, and Ragtime.
Ginger Rogers is one of the most recognizable dancers in history. She is known for her immense film credits and success on stage. While she is often remembered for her time dancing with Fred Astaire, Rogers was a force in her own right.
Coming from a difficult home, Ginger Rogers certainly didn’t find her way to stardom without overcoming struggles. Her childhood was full of uncertainty and abuse, but she eventually found her place after winning a contest in 1925 at the age of 14 that gave her a 4-week contract on the Insterstate circuit. She then went on to perform on Vaudeville and learned that she loved acting and dancing.
She got an agent in 1929 at the age of 18 and went on to perform in short films and appeared in her first Broadway production “Christmas Day” the same year. She appeared in movies and on stage for years including appearing in films such as “Day of a Man of Affairs”, “Campus Sweethearts”, and “Office Blues”.
The movie that helped make her a true public figure was “Gold Diggers”, and her beauty and voice captivated audiences. In the same year, she was in the hit sensation “42nd Street” on Broadway. These credits got her noticed and earned her a chance to dance with Fred Astaire in the film “Flying Down to Rio”. Her numerous films with Astaire made them a sensation, and they performed with each other consistently for 16 years and are still referred to as one of the best cinematic couples of all time.
After a film with Fred Astaire (The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) didn’t do as well as their previous films, executives at RKO encouraged Ginger to do more on her own. She starred in many successful films, with one of her most successful being “Kitty Foyle” where she was really able to showcase her immense talent: and she won an Academy Award for her work!
She also starred in the well-known film “Tom, Dick, and Harry” in 1957 and continued to work until her final film, “Harlow”. She went on to appear on Broadway and European stages until her retirement in 1984. She wrote an autobiography titled “Ginger, My Story” in 1991. Ginger Rogers passed away on April 25, 1995. Nearly 30 years later, she continues to be an inspiration and is widely remembered as one of the dance greats.
Martha Graham’s work shows her deep fascination with the human form and all of the ways our bodies can move to express emotion. With her father (a doctor who used movement to treat nervous disorders) as an influence, she had a relationship with physicality from childhood.
In 1926, she founded her own dance company in Manhattan, where she experimented with the most basic movements to develop her own technique and vocabulary. Her work paid off, and the world of dance has never been the same since her style was introduced. She is often credited as being the ‘Mother of Modern Dance’ and her work is still a source of inspiration for today’s choreographers and dancers.
Martha Graham was unique in that she didn’t just work with dancers. Throughout her career, she worked with famous sculptors, actors, directors, fashion designers, and composers. She also drew her inspiration from a wide variety of mediums including “modern painting, the American frontier, religious ceremonies of Native Americans, and Greek mythology. Many of her most important roles portray great women of history and mythology: Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra, Joan of Arc, and Emily Dickinson.”
Her legacy reached beyond her own company and her work earned her honors and awards such as The Lauren Leaf of American Composers Alliance in 1959, the Local One Centennial Award for Dance in 1986, and even The Presidential Medal of Freedom: Gerald R. Ford called her a “national treasure”. She was also one of the first recipients of the prestigious National Medal of Arts. TIME magazine even named her “Dancer of the Century” and People magazine named her one of the “Icons of the Century”.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that Martha Graham is one of the 20th century’s most important dancers. Her mark on the dance industry will forever be remembered, and even after her death in 1991, her work continues to influence and inspire.
Jennifer Lopez is a household name. From her blockbuster movies, decades-long singing career, and appearances on TV shows, what JLO might most be known for is her amazing dance ability. Her dancing, paired with her other talents, lead to her now well-known career.
Born in the Bronx in 1969, Jennifer Lopez got her start in musical theater. Her talent was quickly recognized and she appeared in her first film ‘My Little Girl’ at just 16 years old. She then appeared in a number of tv shows and smaller films until she landed the role that launched her career: the title Character in ‘Selena’. Her performance awarded her a nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes. She then co-starred with George Clooney in ‘Out of Sight’ and became the highest-paid Latina actress in Hollywood History.
Shortly after her success from ‘Selena’ and ‘Out of Sight’, JLO debuted her first album, ‘On the 6’ in 1999. Since then, she has released eight studio albums, one remix album, three compilation albums, one extended play, 65 singles (including 14 as a featured artist), five charity singles, and 12 promotional singles.
While her career showcases her many talents, the one main consistency in Jennifer Lopez’s live performances is her incredible dancing. Her shows are always filled with dance that entertains and is masterful: no easy feat! She showed even more of her dancing prowess during the 2020 Superbowl with Shakira, where the dancing was perhaps the most exciting part of the performance.
Debbie Reynolds was a symbol of Hollywood glamour and talent. Known for her work in musicals, her career lasted a lifetime. She continued to work steadily until just a few years before her passing. She was a captivating dancer, a warm and beautiful actress, and an advocate for mental health.
Born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas, Debbie Reynolds started in show business after being recruited by a Warner Bros. film scout who attended one of her beauty pageants. At the age of 16, she made her film debut and quickly signed with MGM talent. She co-starred with dance greats like Fred Astaire and her early credits led her to star in one of her most recognizable roles: Kathy in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.
Debbie Reynolds was only 19 when she starred opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the classic musical film adaption and became a household name. She went on to star in numerous films in the 1950s and in 1957, she placed no 1 on the pop charts with her ballad ‘Tammy’ (a song in the film she starred in, ‘Tammy and the Bachelor’).
In the 1960s she began to expand into more comedic roles, starring in ‘The Rat Race’, ‘The Pleasure of His Company’, as well as a handful of westerns. She continued to find success in musicals, however. Her performance of the title role in ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ earned her a 1964 Academy Award nomination.
Far from being a one-trick performer, Debbie Reynolds also worked in TV and on the stage. She had her own sitcom, ‘The Debbie Reynolds Show’, did voiceover work, performed in Las Vegas nightclubs and on Broadway, and received a Tony nomination for the revival of ‘Irene’ in 1973. She continued to perform on stage through the 1980s.
She returned to film in 1992 and appeared in films like ‘The Bodyguard’, ‘Heaven and Earth’, ‘Mother’, and ‘In & Out’. She had a recurring role on ‘Will & Grace’ and her work won her an Emmy nomination. She won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2015 for her work promoting mental health as a co-founder of The Thalians.
In 2017, a day after her daughter Carrie Fisher’s death, Debbie Reynolds was rushed to the hospital and died a mere 3 hours later. Her son Todd was quoted as saying “She wanted to be with Carrie”. Debbie Reynolds leaves behind a legacy of performances in her many films, musicals, and tv appearances. She is remembered as a gorgeous dancer, actor, and person.
Mia Michael's work is impressive: she has won multiple Emmy’s, choreographed Broadway hit ‘Finding Neverland’ and choreographed a preview of the song ‘Neverland’ for the Tony Awards, has guest choreographed the opening number for The Rockettes Spring Spectacular, and has even been a guest artist for Broadway at the White House.
Aside from her NYC-based company RAW, which has gained critical acclaim, she has also choreographed and judged ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and ‘SYTYCD Canada’. She choreographed Hugh Laurie in the show ‘House’ for a number of Get Happy and collaborated with fellow SYTYCD judge Adam Shankman to choreograph the film adaption of ‘Rock of Ages’.
Mia Michaels choreographed for Celine Dion both in her Las Vegas residency and on her world tour ‘Taking Chances’. Mia has also created works for numerous recording artists including Madonna, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Anna Vissi, & Prince. Michaels has been a faculty member at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Joffrey Ballet, as well as teaching her masterclass, Mia Mi