The world of dance is possibly one of the most diverse and large cultural institutions on the planet. There are dances and dancers in every country in the world, and new companies and styles are cropping up every year. However, stars are stars, and some just shine a little brighter than the rest. Here are a few of the best living dancers on the planet, with a nod at the end to those who have passed and still shine on in eternity.
More than perhaps any other living dancer on the planet, Baryshnikov embodies the development of modern ballet from a noble European history into worldwide, rockstar levels of fame and acclaim. His defection from the U.S.S.R. in 1974 caused an international scandal that was only matched by his rapid ascension as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, and then the New York City Ballet. His crossover work in film and television as well as his career as an artistic director and choreographer have cemented his reputation as one of the greatest living dancers.
Born in Spain in 1969 to a family with a Romani background, Joaquín Cortés is a true hybrid star. Starting out as a highly-skilled flamenco dancer, Cortés trained in classical ballet as a teenager, creating a flamenco-ballet hybrid style that is famous worldwide for its extreme athleticism and powerfully emotive gestures and motions. A fashion icon as well as a sex symbol, Cortés has performed for presidents, royalty, and celebrities while maintaining a career as a highly sought-after dancer and choreographer. His shows are blockbusters that regularly sell out, a testament to his impressive and enduring career.
A naturally gifted dancer who was an award-winning professional at the age of 15 despite only starting ballet two years earlier, Misty Copeland is a uniquely brilliant dancer. The first African-American woman to become a principal dancer for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, Copeland has also worked extensively in film and television, as well as modeling and brand ambassadorship. She even worked with the late superstar Prince, starring in his music video for the song ‘Crimson and Clover,’ and touring with him as a principal dancer in his massive stage show. She is the subject of two autobiographies about her unique career path and struggles and serves as an inspiration to young girls and people of color everywhere for her remarkable achievements.
A true renaissance man, actor, producer, and director Prabhu Deva is also possibly the most influential choreographer and dancer working in Indian cinema today. Trained in a wide variety of Indian classical dances, he is also skilled at interpreting western dance styles for his mostly Asian audience. For instance, he is heavily influenced by the productions of the late Michael Jackson. What is really impressive, however, is the broad crossover appeal of his career. He has made serious inroads not only in the more internationally well-known world of Bollywood but also into the world of Southeast Asian cinema at large. A big part of this success lies with his multi-lingual abilities–he makes films in Tamil or Telugu just as easily as he does in the more common Hindi–as well as his constant drive for creating exciting new hybrid forms of East-meets-West dance in his productions.
Larry and Laurent Bourgeois are French-Guadaloupian identical twins known professionally as “Les Twins.” True outsiders since youth, the twins received no formal training, instead, they learned through observing street dances in the Northern Paris projects where they grew up. After mastering popping and locking and other similar techniques, they began to incorporate self-taught ballet motions into their repertoire, creating an exciting new avant-garde hip-hop dance style. Now in their early thirties, the brothers are known internationally as fashion and dance icons, having performed worldwide with stars like Beyoncé and Missy Elliott.
Referred to by his childhood teacher, the late tap master Gregory Hines, as “possibly the best tap dancer that ever lived,” Savion Glover has been performing professionally since he was a youth. Over his three-decade-plus career, he has turned tap dance into a dazzling art form, referencing many styles and paying homage to multiple cultures with his funky virtuosity. Known for his exciting and sophisticated stage production, the most famous of which was the Off-Broadway blockbuster ‘Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,’ Savion’s effortless and innovative style has made him a much sought-after teacher and choreographer.
Echoes From The Past
Here are a few dancers who have passed on, but without whom no “best list” would be complete.
Like his fellow U.S.S.R. defector Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev was a technical master whose abilities and vision changed the world of ballet forever. After growing famous for his early work with the prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn and The Royal Ballet, Nureyev branched out into many international performances before settling in as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. His premature death from AIDS in 1993 was a terrible blow to the world of ballet.
It is impossible to think about Modern American Dance without considering the monumental additions and innovations made by Martha Graham. Her ground-breaking work as a choreographer and dancer influenced the entire trajectory of dance in America in the mid-20th century, and her “Graham Technique” is still taught and revered by teachers around the world.
A self-taught dancer who came from virtual poverty to international fame, Isadora Duncan is a towering figure in the world of 20th-century dance. Without her, it would be difficult to imagine the emergence of contemporary dance from under the shadow of classical ballet, whose rigid forms she rejected in favor of an innovative style of improvisation free expression. By the time of her premature death in 1927 at the age of 50, she had founded schools in Europe and North American and laid the groundwork for the development of modern and contemporary dance across the world.
Equally, at home working on Broadway as well as Tinseltown, Bob Fosse was an innovative dancer and choreographer whose work was essential in the development of jazz and contemporary dance. His work on big-scale productions like ‘Cabaret’, ‘Sweet Charity’, and ‘Damn Yankees’ struck a nearly impossible balance between massive ensemble choreography and unique and individualized character spotlights which lent humanity to the larger-than-life movies and Broadway shows that dominated the mid-20th century. His mixture of theater and jazz music showcased new moves like jazz hands which are ubiquitous today as well as a hybrid of world dance styles that had never been blended before his time.
A mentor and teacher to Savion Glover as well as countless other young dancers, Gregory Hines was the reigning superstar of tap dance. Beginning with his Broadway debut as a child in the 1950’s until his untimely death from cancer at the age of 57, Hines was the most famous and celebrated tap dancer in the world. From a young fascination with his idol Sammy Davis Jr, Hines developed a unique and versatile actor’s approach to tap, leaning on the various fundamentals of entertainment to forge a style that relied on warmth and humor as well as his effortless and breathtaking moves. Without Gregory Hines, there would be a rigid and unbreakable formality to the world of tap dance that would exclude the theatricality and beauty of the style in its current form.
Ethnographer, choreographer, social activist, author, and teacher, Kathryn Dunham brought a serious academic and anthropological angle to the study and development of dance. Her world detailing the evolution of African dance in the diaspora of the Americas was incredibly important to both the development of new dance forms as well as the documentation of the history of dance and human expression. Her “Dunham Technique” is a revolutionary, holistic, mind and body philosophy of African tradition, dance movement, and exercise that is still practiced around the world today.
The undisputed dancing king of Hollywood, Fred Astaire was a monumental figure in the development of dance in film. With a career that began in the pre-screen vaudeville days and spanned from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the world of television, Astaire was a blockbuster entertainer who influenced every star who came after him, from Baryshnikov to Michael Jackson. His onscreen chemistry with partner Ginger Baker is timeless and the stuff of Tinseltown legend and his unique virtuosity allowed him to act while dancing, conveying humor and emotion in a way that had never been seen before. It’s safe to say that without Fred Astaire, most of the people on this list would not have had the careers that they had, and the world of dance itself would not be recognizable.
A crossover star and woman who dominated the intellectual and cultural milieu of her time, Josephine Baker took the emerging world of jazz dance from her American background to her adopted home of France to become a sensational artistic figure in Europe. Rising to fame in Paris in the roaring ‘20’s, she became an icon of the jazz age and a figure of international civil rights and resistance to fascism and repression. Often considered the first Black female sex symbol of the 20th century, she was also a brilliant dancer whose frenetic and physical style embodied and defined the very essence of jazz and swing music.
In the highly segregated age of vaudeville and minstrel shows, one name shines above the rest as a performer whose sheer talent was able to transcend the bigotry and limitations of his time to become a superstar. That name is Bill Robinson. Born the grandchild of former slaves in Virginia in 1878, Bill Robinson used his drive and natural talent to become a renaissance man of the early American entertainment industry. Mastering tap dance, acting, singing, and joke-telling, and physical comedy, he worked his way up from the segregated minstrel show and vaudeville circuits to Broadway and beyond; becoming the highest-paid Black performer of his time and starring in a series of hit movies the 1930’s and ‘40’s.
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