Famous Women of Dance from 1804 to the Present

Famous Women of Dance from 1804 to the Present

Who were the the women who shaped the field of dance? Some are known for developing modern dance and postmodern dance, some for their classic dance performances. Some are women pioneers in dance and some are famous women who were dancers as part of their career. Some may surprise you to find here!

On Broadway in New York from 1907 to 1931, hundreds of young women whose names are mostly not remembered danced as part of the Ziegfeld Follies.

Marie Taglioni 1804 - 1884

Marie Taglioni. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Italian and Swedish in heritage, Marie Taglioni was a popular dancer during her prime, and she returned to teach dance some years after her retirement.

Fannie Elssler 1810 - 1884

Fannie Elssler and her Cracovienne Dance, music cover, 1850. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Austrian ballerina of international renown, known especially for her Spanish cachucha, introduced in 1836 in e Diable Boiteaux. Her performances in La TarentuleLa Gypsy,Giselle and Esmeralda were especially noted. She and Marie Taglioni were contemporaries and key competitors in the dance world.

Lola Montez 1821 (or 1818?) - 1861

Lola Montez, lithography by Alophe after a portrait by Dartiguenave. Culture Club / Getty Images

After a scandalous early adulthood, Elizabeth Gilbert took up Spanish dancing under the name Lola Montez. Though her tarantella-based Spider Dance became famous, her celebrity was based more on her personal life than on her performances on stage. She's supposed to have been responsible for the abdication of Louis II, king of Bavaria. Another of her lovers was the composer Liszt.

Colette 1873 - 1954

Lithograph by Sem: Le Palais De Glace: Colette; Willy and Other Persona. France, 1901. Georges Goursat / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Colette became a dancer after her first divorce, though she had already published several novels -- those first ones under her husband's pseudonym. She's most known for her writing and for her scandalous personal life. She received the French Legion of Honor (Légion d'Honneur) in 1953.

Isadora Duncan 1877 - 1927

Isadora Duncan dancing with scarf, 1918. Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Isadora Duncan helped lead the revolution in dance towards modern dance with her signature expressive dance. After the deaths of her children, she tended more towards tragic themes. Her own death was dramatic and tragic: strangled by her own scarf when it was caught in the wheel of the car she was riding in.

Ruth St Denis 1879 - 1968

Ruth St Denis on a magazine cover, 1929. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

A pioneer in modern dance, she created the Denishawn Schools with her husband Ted Shawn. She integrated Asian forms including yoga, and arguably had a stronger influence on modern dance than contemporaries Maud Allen, Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller.

Anna Pavlova 1881 - 1931

Anna Pavlova in Giselle (1920). General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

A Russian who studied ballet from the age of ten, Anna Pavlova is especially remembered for her portrayal of the dying swan. Isadora Duncan was her contemporary, with Anna remaining committed to the classic style of dance while Duncan was committed to innovation.

Martha Graham 1894 - 1991

Martha Graham in Phaedra, 1966. Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

A pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham through her choreography and dance troupe over more than 40 years shaped the American approach to dance.

Adele Astaire 1898 - 1981

Adele and Fred Astaire, brother and sister vaudeville act, about 1905. Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Her younger brother Fred became more famous, but the two worked as a team until 1932 when Adele Astaire married into British royalty and gave up her career.

Known for: the older sister of Fred Astaire
Occupation: dancer
Dates: September 10, 1898 - January 25, 1981

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Ann Gelius
  • Father: Frederick Austerlitz
  • Siblings: Fred Astaire (younger)

Adele Astaire Biography:

Adele Astaire and her younger brother, Fred Astaire, began performing in amateur productions at an early age. In 1904, they moved with their parents to New York to study at the Metropolitan Ballet School and the Claude Alvienne School of Dance.

The children performed as a team outside New York on the vaudeville circuit. When they became adults, they achieved more and more success with their dancing, which was influenced by their training in ballet, ballroom and eccentric dance.

The two performed in the musical For Goodness Sake in 1922, to George Gershwin's music. The same year, they performed in The Bunch and Judy with music by Jerome Kern. They then toured London where they were also quite popular.

Back in New York, they continued performing, including in George Gershwin's Funny Face and the 1931 production The Band Wagon.

In 1932, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, a second son of a Duke, and gave up her performing career except for occasional appearances to sing or act. They lived in Ireland in Lismore Castle. Their first child in 1933 died at birth, and twins born in 1935 were born prematurely and also died. Lord Charles died in 1944.

Adele married Kingman Douglass in 1944. He was an investment broker and an executive with the US Central Intelligence Agency.

She died in 1981 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Ruth Page 1899 - 1991

Ruth Page, 1982. Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

Ballerina and choreographer Ruth Page debuted on Broadway in 1917, toured with Anna Pavlova's dance company, and danced in many productions and companies over forty years. She's noted for choreographing the annual presentation of The Nutcracker at Chicago's Arie Crown Theatre from 1965 to 1997, and she was the choreographer for 1947's Music in My Heart on Broadway.

Josephine Baker 1906 - 1975

Josephine Baker and chorus girls in Broadway show Chocolate Dandies 1924. John D. Kisch / Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

Josephine Baker became a dancer in vaudeville and on Broadway when she ran away from home, but it was her jazz revue in Europe which led to her fame and lasting celebrity. She also worked with the French Resistance and Red Cross during World War II. As with many African American artists, she experienced racism in the United States both in gaining bookings and even in being able to be in the audience at clubs

Katherine Dunham 1909 - 2006

Katherine Dunham about 1945, wearing dance costume with ruffle tufts and artificial orchids. American Stock / Getty Images

Katherine Dunham, an anthropologist, dancer and choreographer, brought African American insights to modern dance. She ran the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for almost thirty years, then the only self-supporting African American dance troupe. She and her troupe appeared in the all black cast of the 1940s movie, Stormy Weather, which starred Lena Horne. Eartha Kitt was a member of the Katherine Dunham dance troupe.

Lena Horne 1917 - 2010

Movie Poster for 20th Century Fox Movie Stormy Weather, 1943. John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images

Lena Horne is better known as a singer and actress, but she began her professional appearances as a dancer. She is often linked to her signature song, "Stormy Weather.” That was also the name of a 1940s movie musical in which she starred with an all-black cast

Maria Tallchief 1925 - 2013

Maria Tallchief, 2006. Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Maria Tallchief, whose father was of Osage descent, pursued ballet from an early age. She was the first American prima ballerina at the New York City Ballet, and was one of the few Native Americans to be accepted in ballet - though she was met with skepticism at first because of her heritage. She was a founder of and key figure in the Chicago City Ballet in the 1970s and 1980s.

Trisha Brown 1936 -

Dancer and Choreographer Trisha Brown, June 1976. Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Known as a postmodernist choreographer and dancer, challenging the practices of modern dance, Trisha Brown founded the Trisha Brown Dance Company. She's also known as a visual artist.

Martha Clarke 1944 -

Martha Clarke at the 2014 Atlantic Theater Company's Writers' Choice Gala. J. Countess / Getty Images

A choreographer and theater director, she's known for staging visual tableaux, sometimes described as moving paintings. She received a MacArthur Award (genius grant) in 1990. Her Chéri, about an earlier dancer, the French novelist Colette, was staged in 2013 in New York and then moved on to a world tour.