March 8 is International Women’s Day. Today, we recognize all the incredible contributions women have made to society—and acknowledge the persistent discrimination that women have overcome and continue to overcome. Dance Spirit is here to highlight just a few of the amazing women throughout history who changed the course of dance forever through their creativity, technique, artist and tenacity.
Martha Graham created more than 180 pieces of choreography, many of which she performed herself. After leaving the Denishawn School, Graham founded her own school and company and codified her own Graham modern-dance technique. Her style was both intensely technical and highly emotional, and she often found inspiration from myths and poems. Her company still performs her work to this day.
Agnes de Mille
Agnes de Mille choreographed many ballets and musicals throughout her career, including Rodeo, for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1942, which was unique for being the first ballet to incorporate tap dancing. Her Americana aesthetics and interest in pushing the boundaries of what dance could say to audiences continued when she choreographed Oklahoma! In 1943. Her movement creation, including the iconic “dream ballet,” marked the first time in American musical theater that the dancing propelled the story forward, rather than pausing it. Without Agnes de Mille, the landscape of musical-theater choreography might look entirely different today.
Katherine Dunham was influential not only as a choreographer and dancer, but also as a cultural anthropologist. After earning her degree in anthropology, she was awarded a grant to travel to the Caribbean to study the dance forms of the people there. Her trips led to several books and movement performances, and greatly informed what is now called “dance anthropology.” She also pioneered the incorporation of African and Caribbean dance techniques into concert dance, which has greatly influenced jazz dance as a genre today.
Simply put, Misty Copeland is the face of ballet today. The first African American woman to be promoted to the rank of principal with American Ballet Theatre, Copeland has shattered every barrier placed in front of her. In addition to performing iconic roles such as the Firebird, from The Firebird,and Odette/Odile, from swan lake, Among others, Copeland has become an author, a film actress, a model and a public speaker.
Born in 1925 and the daughter of an Osage tribe member, Maria Tallchief was the first Native American to become a principal dancer in a ballet company, and is considered to be America’s first prima ballerina. She danced with the Ballets Russes and New York City Ballet, and with American Ballet Theater as a guest artist. Tallchief also became the first American to dance with the Paris Opéra Ballet and the first American to perform at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In 1999, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the US government. Throughout her career and despite facing discrimination, she declined to change her name and remained proud and vocal about her Native heritage.
One of the most recognizable names in ballet is Anna Pavlova, the famous prima who danced with the Imperial Ballet in Russia and gave guest performances in New York City and London. She became so uniquely popular that she toured as a soloist, dancing variations and excerpts from ballets to rapturous audiences. One such solo was her signature dance, The Dying Swan. Anna Pavlova is also credited with inventing the modern pointe shoe, when she added a leather sole to form a shank and darned the tip to harden the shoe’s box.
Ruth St. Denis
As a young dancer in New York City, Ruth Dennis came across a cigarette poster featuring an illustration of the goddess Isis, and was so inspired that she choreographed an innovative modern dance routine—loosely “inspired” by an imagined version of dance traditions from the Far East—that catapulted her to fame. Later, alongside her husband Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis (as she’d begun to call herself) founded the leading Denishawn Dance School and Company in Los Angeles. Students like Martha Graham later carried on her legacy of evolving and popularizing modern dance. st. Denis also founded the first dance department at an American university, Adelphi University.
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