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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 Michaels Live, worldwide.

Perhaps more impressive than her extensive work is her philosophy. She works with dancers to teach them how their body feels rather than feeling that they need to be pressured to fit into industry ‘standards’. As stated on her website: “This philosophy is how Mia has lived her life, as she is the only plus-sized woman to ever receive such success in the dance industry…. Mia’s students, peers & mentors have noted her as a dedicated, live-changing influence of positivity in their lives. Mia has a way of touching each human she encounters with passion, emotional expression, and confidence of self-love.”

As a young girl, Susan Stroman loved Fred Astaire movies and has said that when she listened to music she would often visualize dance. After attending dance classes throughout childhood and choreographing for local theatres in college, she moved to NYC with the hopes of becoming a choreographer.

She would conquer her goal, but she first started off doing work as an assistant director, assistant choreographer, and dance captain for various Broadway shows. She eventually collaborated with Scott Ellis on the Off-Broadway revival of ‘Flora, the Red Menace’ in 1987. It gained huge success and was the major kickoff for her long-standing career.

She went on to choreograph shows for the New York City Opera and in 1991 she won her first Outer Critics Circle Award for choreography for her work on ‘And the World Goes ‘Round’. She choreographed Broadway shows such as ‘Crazy for You’, ‘Show Boat’, ‘Oklahoma!’, and ‘The Music Man’. She won multiple awards for her work including Tonys, Drama Desk Awards, and Olivier Awards during this time. She choreographed for ballets at the Martha Graham Company and the New York City Ballet as well as for different projects in film and television.

The show for which she amassed a record-breaking amount of awards was ‘The Producers’, which she directed, and the show won an almost unbelievable 12 Tony Awards in 2001. She would later direct the film adaptation in 2005. She is still choreographing and directing for various Broadway musicals and continues to find success in New York Theatre. She is the recipient of the George Abbott Award for Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater and an inductee of the Theater Hall of Fame in New York City.

Julianne Hough gained nearly overnight success from her success on “Dancing With the Stars”. Her time with the network show was just the start, and she has gone on to achieve success in films, on tours, on television, and as a recording artist.

During her time on ‘Dancing With The Stars, Julianne Hough earned two Emmy nominations for Best Choreography in 2008 and 2009 and won an Emmy in 2015 for her choreography of ‘Elastic Heart’. After her time dancing on DWTS, she returned as a full-time judge from 2014-2017 and has appeared as a guest judge throughout the years to promote her various works in film.

Dancing isn’t Julianne Hough’s only talent. She starred in ‘Safe Haven’, an adaption of a Nicholas Sparks novel, in 2013. She also starred in movies such as ‘Paradise’, ‘Rock of Ages’, ‘Footloose’, ‘Burlesque’, ‘Dirty Grandpa’, and ‘Bigger’. The film she has been quoted as saying was a “dream role” was her work as Sandy in the 2015 FOX performance of ‘Grease Live!’. She and the cast won an MTV Movie & TV Award for Best Musical Moment for their performance in ‘You’re the One That I Want’.

Amidst her film success (which often featured her dancing), she certainly hasn’t forgotten her dancing roots. She and her brother, Derek, produced and co-directed MOVE Live on Tour: a dance tour that sold out throughout North America. The tour features a variety of dance styles including ballroom, tap, salsa, and hip-hop.

Julianne has also proven her musical talent, releasing a record in 2008 that hit the Billboard Country charts at #1 and the Billboard 200 at #3. She received two 2009 Academy of Country Music Awards for Top New Female Vocalist and Top New Artist.

An active entrepreneur, Julianne has created fitness DVDs, has a partnership with MPG Activewear, Giorgio Beverly Hills Fragrances, and has hosted Disney Holiday specials. She has also executive produced and co-hosted the famous Miss USA Competition. Julianne Hough also believes in supporting philanthropic endeavors such as being involved in the Kind Campaign, Kind Camp, and other organizations that empower young women.

Julianne Hough will surely continue to impress with her numerous involvements in the entertainment world. To watch the work she’s done, check out our resources page or check out the videos in the lobby!

Crystal Pite has broken barriers as a choreographer. Her work stems from a classical ballet background, a dance style whose leadership is predominately men. Despite this, her immense talent and commitment have led her to a rich career.

As a young woman, Pite trained at prestigious dancing facilities such as the Banff Centre, School of Toronto Dance Theatre, and the Pacific Dance Center in Victoria. She joined Ballet British Columbia at 18 years old and two years later choreographed her first professional show while there.

During her 8 years at Ballet British Columbia, she performed a wide range of works including work by William Forsyth, Serge Bennathan, John Alleyne, and more. She continued to choreograph during this time for companies like Les Ballets Jazz De Montreal, the Alberta Ballet, Ballet Jorgen, and Ballet BC.

Crystal Pite’s prowess earned her a spot in Ballett Frankfurt in Germany. She worked with William Forsythe once again and toured Europe and the United States performing his works. She is one of four dancers featured in ‘William Forsythe: Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye.’

Pite returned to Canada in 2001 and continued to dance and choreograph. The same year, she founded her dance company: Kid Pivot. She was able to really develop her own style and continued to develop a passion for theatrical storytelling through movement.

Crystal Pite’s company eventually dedicated time to both Frankfurt and Canada and is well sought after for performances. In 2010 alone the dancers toured in 22 cities in seven countries, totaling 75 total performances.

While her choreography has certainly earned her recognition, she continues to dance. She danced and was featured in three films: ‘A Hollow Place’,’ One Night Stand’, and a dance short for CBC.

Pite has been greatly awarded for her achievements. She has won the Bonnie Bird North American Choreographic Award, the Isadora Award, the Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award, and the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award. In 2008 she was chosen for the Governor General of Canada's Performing Arts mentorship program, and the following year she won four Dora Mavor Moore awards.

Crystal Pite continues to work as an Associate Artist and choreographer for prestigious ballet companies across the globe. Her work is definitely worth watching.

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