In the spirit of trying to imagine a whole #daywithoutawoman, can you fathom the history of dance without all the incredible women we know and love? No, we can’t either. Here are five women who revolutionized dance as we know it today.
One of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, Martha Graham (1894–1991) helped lead the American modern-dance revolution, breaking from the traditions of classical ballet, as well as the romantic style of earlier modern-dance pioneers.
These movements and vocabulary terms are among the many contributions Graham gave to the artform:
- CONTRACTION: The percussive action of exhale; it’s a curved lower spine and rounded pelvis—initiated from the pelvis.
- RELEASE: The action of inhale. Initiated with the pelvis, it’s an extended lower back and elongated spine.
- INNER LANDSCAPE: “The soul of man.” It was Graham’s fundamental quest to express the human psyche.
Agnes de Mille
Famous for choreographing Oklahoma!, Carousel and Brigadoon, Agnes de Mille forever changed the face of Broadway dance. She was the first to create movement that added to the story’s emotional impact, rather than simply inserting standard chorus-girl routines between each scene, as was the convention of the time. De Mille’s movement actually helped move the plot along.
Repeatedly told that her body type was all wrong for dance—de Mille was short and voluptuous—she instead earned her English degree at the University of California at Los Angeles, while choreographing solos for student productions on the side. #Loveyourself
Arguably the most important American-born dance artist of the early 20th century, Duncan forged her style against ballet’s codified technique and its aristocratic lineage. Renouncing typical female dancing roles—such as the coquette, femme fatale and tragic victim of love—the trailblazer expanded women’s possibilities, onstage and off, and helped lay the foundation for American modern dance. To think, where would dance be without Isadora?!
If you’re a Beyoncé fan, then you need to give thanks to the original Queen Bee: Josephine Baker. Her big break came in 1925, when she was recruited for a new, all-black variety show in Paris called La Revue Nègre. In it, she danced suggestively while nearly nude in a tribal costume. She became an instant hit and the show’s poster girl. After hugely successful runs at the famous Parisian music hall, Folies Bergère, Baker tried her luck in French movies. She starred in Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), both big hits.
After studying with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, Tharp went on to join Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1963. In 1965 she formed her own company, Twyla Tharp Dance, and since then she has choreographed groundbreaking performances for dozens of dance companies and Broadway shows, including the 2002 hit, Movin’ Out, for which she was awarded a Tony for Best Choreographer.
She famously said, “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”