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A History Of Dance: Famous Dancers In The Past And Present

The best dancers in the world come from a wide range of genres and backgrounds.
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Talent, technique, tenacity: these are just some of the qualities a great dancer must possess. But to become an internationally-renowned performer, you need to be a cut above the rest. We put together a list of the top male and female dancers in history and today – from ballerinas to jazz dancers to hip-hop dancers, one of them is sure to inspire you to step up!

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The Greatest Dancers Of All Time

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Anna Pavlova

When it comes to ballet dancers, few will ever come close to Pavlova. Not only was she one of the top Russian dancers at the time, but she also designed the precursor to the modern pointe shoe.

A picture of Anna Pavlova in a ballet outfit against a black background
Top ballet dancer Anna Pavlova (Credit: Getty)

Michael Jackson

The toe-stand. The anti-gravity lean. The moonwalk. Michael Jackson may not have invented these steps, but he definitely made them into the iconic moves they are today.

Michael Jackson performing on stage against a black backdrop
Dance innovator Michael Jackson (Credit: Getty)

Fred Astaire

Considered one of the greatest ballroom and tap dancers in film history, Fred Astaire’s name is practically synonymous with dance. He starred in over 10 stage musicals and 30+ film musicals (10 of which were with his equally-iconic dance partner, Ginger Rogers).

A black and white photo of actor and performer Fred Astaire
All-time great. Fred Astaire (Credit: Getty)

Martha Graham

Contemporary dancers and lyrical dancers have one woman to thank: Martha Graham. In defiance of the rigidity of ballet, Graham pioneered the modern dance movement which prioritised expression and fluidity over strict technique.

Patrick Swayze

Swayze starred in Dirty Dancing, which eventually became one of the most successful and culturally-significant dance movies of the 20th century.

Patrick Swayze from the dance movie, Dirty Dancing
Patrick Swayze (Credit: Gettyy)

Carmen Amaya

Amaya is considered to be one of the biggest flamenco dancers in history. She was also the first female dancer to master the intense and fast footwork that only male Spanish dancers did at the time.

Willi Ninja

Called the ‘godfather of voguing’, Willi Ninja helped developed an entirely new style of dance, based on model’s poses in magazines. He appeared in Madonna’s music video for “Vogue” as well as the award-winning documentary Paris is Burning.

Wall Ninja at the nightclub Mars
Willi Ninja (Credit: Getty)

The Most Famous Dancers In The World Today

Misty Copeland

Even though Copeland only started ballet at 13, she quickly rose in the ranks. She’s now the principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre and has appeared on Broadway, So You Think You Can Dance, and in commercials for Under Armour, T-Mobile, and Dr Pepper.

Misty Copeland
Even though Copeland only started ballet at 13, she quickly rose in the ranks. (Credit: Getty)

Maddie Ziegler

Coming off reality TV show Dance Moms, Maddie Ziegler was only 11 when she starred in Sia’s music video for “Chandelier”. This resulted in dozens of TV appearances, magazine features, acting gigs, and brand campaigns.

Sia Maddie Ziegler
Coming off reality TV show Dance Moms, Maddie Ziegler was only 11 when she starred in Sia’s music video for “Chandelier”. (Credit: Getty)

Yanis Marshall

French choreographer and dancer Yanis Marshall is most famous for his videos on YouTube, a stint on Britain’s Got Talent, and his work with Cirque du Soleil. Marshall wears high heels in a lot of his routines which is what sets him apart from other male dancers in the industry.

Yanis Marshall
French choreographer and dancer Yannis Marshall is most famous for his videos on YouTube, a stint on Britain’s Got Talent. (Credit: Getty)

Channing Tatum

Magic Mike isn’t just a fun movie about male strippers, it’s actually a fictional retelling of Channing Tatum’s actual life story. The actor started out as an exotic dancer before breaking into Hollywood. Tatum’s showed off his skills in the Magic Mike films and the original Step Up movie, cementing his status as one of the top celebrity dancers of today.

Channing Tatum
Magic Mike isn’t just a fun movie about male strippers, it’s actually a fictional retelling of Channing Tatum’s actual life story. (Credit: Getty)

Alla Kushnir

Ukrainian Alla Kushnir (also known as Leila) is considered to be one of the most versatile and talented belly dancers in contemporary times. She’s performed all around the world, picking up a few awards in the process. In 2008, she snagged the title of Miss Bellydance of Europe.

Michael Flatley

‘Lord of the Dance’ Michael Flatley is a god among Irish dancers. He reinvented the traditional Riverdance and incorporated new styles and movements, bringing it to a more mainstream audience. He is also the Guinness World Records holder for the highest number of ‘taps’ per second at 35 times.

Michael Flatley
‘Lord of the Dance’ Michael Flatley is a god among Irish dancers. (Credit: Getty)

Jabbawockeez

Asian-American hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez first rose to international prominence on the show America’s Best Dance Crew. They went on to win the first season and received a Living Legend of Hip Hop Award from Hip Hop International four years later. They perform in identical white masks so that the audience focuses on them as a collective rather than as individual dancers.

Jabbawockeez
Asian-American hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez first rose to international prominence on the show America’s Best Dance Crew. (Credit: Getty)

Sofia Boutella

Most people know Sofia Boutella as an actress (with such credits such as Kingsman, Atomic Blonde, and The Mummy reboot), but she’s also an incredibly talented dancer. In fact, she started her career in dance commercials, concerts (as a backup dancer), and music videos. In 2018, she starred in the ensemble ‘dance-horror’ film Climax, a performance which garnered her a lot of critical praise.

Sofia Boutella
Most people know Sofia Boutella as an actress (with such credits such as Kingsman, Atomic Blonde, and The Mummy reboot), but she’s also an incredibly talented dancer. (Credit: Getty)

Dance: A Marriage Of Art And Athleticism

Dance can be many things: a cultural tradition, a social event, a celebration, a performance, or a competition. The dance world today is especially demanding, combining the physical rigour and dedication of sports with the creativity and beauty of art. 

Because of this, not everyone can become a professional dancer, much less a famous one. But that’s okay, because dance is also about self-expression and having fun – so dance away!

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