Female Dancers and Choreographers in History

Comments (0) October 2019 KW Magazine, Women In History


Women participate in every area of society including in the arts and culture.  Women ballerinas are a key component of the art form.  In addition, women laid the foundation for, developed and innovated in the art form of modern dance.  In this month’s column, let’s learn about some of these groundbreaking dancers and choreographers.

Isadora Duncan

Known as the “Mother of Modern Dance” Isadora Duncan was a revolutionary who rejected what she viewed as rigid ballet dance moves.  She coupled free movement with the ideals of Greek beauty and humanity.  Dancing in free-flowing garments, with bare feet and wearing her hair loose, Duncan had rejected ballet after beginning lessons at age nine.  By her early twenties, she developed her distinctive style.  A debut performance in Hungary in 1902 was met with acclaim and provided her with the means to travel to Greece.  In 1905, she established a dance school in Germany.  Later, she moved to Russia and opened a dance school there.  Here she developed some of her best works that communicated emotions through dance.  Her untimely demise in Nice, France is the stuff of legends.

Ruth St. Denis

Ruth St. Denis premiered her first dance work in New York City in 1906; she incorporated Asian art and dance into her performance.  In 1915, after a European tour, Denis co-founded the first major professional dance school, Denishawn.  Denis conceived of many major dance innovations that continue to influence almost every aspect of American dance today.  Her choreographic innovations included music visualization; this is a technique where dancers have movements that correspond to the volume and movement of the music, in addition to its rhythm.  She also developed what she called synchoric orchestration, where dancers have one-on-one assignments to interpret musical instruments of the orchestra.  The “first lady of American dance” Denis taught Martha Graham and other pioneers in the dance profession.  She brought to American dance the incorporation of meaning and inclusion of ideas through the use of themes.  Her use of Asian art and dance forms led to modern dance, which used movements other than those from classic ballet.

Martha Graham

Martha Graham’s influence on modern dance is such that the two are often described synonymously.  Founding the Martha Graham studio in 1926, she created a movement language that uses the expressive capabilities of the human body.  Graham collaborated with artists across every genre:  sculptors, music composers, and fashion designers.  Her movement language began with the body’s ability for collection and release.  This led to angular movements very different from the dance style of her time.  Her repertoire was large – 181 dance compositions.  The recipient of the Medal of Freedom, Graham has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Agnes De Mille

Dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille reached international fame with her ballet Rodeo, created for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942.  As a result of that success, Rogers and Hammerstein asked her to choreograph the dances for their musical Oklahoma!  Other musicals followed including such well-known and loved productions as Brigadoon and Carousel.  Her advocacy for the arts was legendary; she spoke nationwide in support of government subsidies for the arts.  After her recovery from a stroke in 1975, she wrote and composed additional dances.  Agnes de Mille has been featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

In 1947, Maria Tallchief broke significant barriers when she was named the first Native American prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet.  During the 13 years that she was in that role, she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet.  Her first marriage to choreographer George Balanchine resulted in many works designed for her strengths of technical precision, strength, and musicality.  After her retirement in 1965, Tallchief served as the artistic director of the Lyric Opera Ballet. She then founded and served as artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet.  Her many honors include the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of the Arts and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Lupe Serrano

Lupe Serrano was the first female Hispanic principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in 1953.  After training in her native Chile and in Mexico, Serrano made her professional ballet debut at age 13 in Mexico where she became a leading ballerina.  She also broadened her repertoire by studying modern dance, folk dance and dramatic arts.  After she came to New York, she danced as a soloist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before joining the American Ballet Theatre.  She began her teaching career in Milwaukee before retiring from the stage.  By that time, she had been a principal ballerina and danced more than fifty roles.  Of her teaching career, Serrano said, “I continue to be in love with this art and still haven’t lost my pleasure for the dance.”

A dancer and choreographer, Judith Jamison is the Artistic Director Emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  The 50th Inductee into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Dance, Jamison joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1965 and became an international star.  She performed all over the world and formed her own dance company in the 1970s.  She rejoined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when Ailey asked her to become the Artistic Director upon his retirement.  Her 21 years in that role led to increased international visibility and recognition for the organization.  Jamison is the recipient of an Emmy Award and the Kennedy Center Honors.

Cleo Parker Robinson

Founder, choreographer and artistic director of the Cleo Parker Dance Ensemble, Cleo Parker Robinson overcame tremendous adversity as a child and found her refuge in dance.  Her kidneys began to shut down when she was ten (in 1958) and she almost died when segregated Dallas, Texas hospitals would not admit her due to her African-American heritage.  She credits Martha Graham as one of the major influences on her dance style.  Her philosophy of “One Spirit, Many Voices,” is reflected in everything she does.  The recipient of many awards and honors, Robinson has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

These women laid the foundation for those who came after them – like ballerina Misty Copeland.  When she became principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre in 2015, she was the first African-American woman to be named to this esteemed role.

Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives.  These women dancers and choreographers, as well as many others, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story:  A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America.  Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories.  Write women back into history!

Jill TietjenJill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer.  After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide.  She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story:  A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman).  She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners.  The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

Charlotte WaismanCharlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.

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