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Famous Jazz Dancers of All Time

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Famous Jazz Dancers
06 Jun, 2024

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Originating in the streets of New Orleans, jazz dance has a rich history because of its dancers. From Charleston’s lively beats to the elegance of the Lindy Hop, jazz dance has become a worldwide sensation. This comprehensive guide celebrates the legendary dancers who’ve left a lasting mark on the world of jazz dancing. We will list the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

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Top 10 Famous Jazz Dancers

1: William Henry Lane

William Henry Lane
An image credit example from a Wikipedia

Born: 1825, Providence, Rhode Island, United States

Died: 1852, London, United Kingdom

Best known for: Inventing new techniques by combining elements of African American vernacular dance, Irish jigs, and clogging

William Henry Lane, better known as the ‘Father of Tap’ or ‘Master Juba’, was an African-American dancer in the 1840s. He also got the name “Boz’s Juba” as Charles Dickens’ inspiration for American Notes. He traveled through Europe with Ethiopian Serenaders and gained popularity in Britain for his dance style.

His dance style has been noted to be percussive, varied in tempo, lightning-fast at times, and expressive. The dance likely incorporated both European folk steps, such as the Irish jig, and African-derived steps used by plantation slaves, such as the walkaround.

Henry Lane died in 1852 at just 27 years of age, but his mark on the world of jazz dancing has made of the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

2: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker
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Born: June 3, 1906, St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Died: April 12, 1975, Paris, France

Best known for: Chocolate Dandies, La Revue Negre, and Princess Tam Tam

Josephine Baker, aka Black Pearl or Bronze Venus, was an American-born French dancer, actress, and singer. She was an empowered black jazz dancer who was also involved in the civil rights movement.

She was inducted into the Pantheon in Paris and is the first black woman to receive one of the highest honors in France.

She was the first black woman to be cast in a major motion picture, “Siren of the Topics”. She then appeared in many silent and non-silent movies until 1955. She was recruited by Deuxieme Bureau, the French military intelligence agency, as an “honorable correspondent” and worked with the head of French counterintelligence in Paris.

Apart from her contributions to jazz dancing, her involvement and excellence in such versatile fields have established her as one of the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

3: Bill Bojangles Robinson

Bill Bojangles Robinson
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Born: May 25, 1878, Richmond, Virginia, United States

Died: November 25, 1949, New York, New York, United States

Best known for: Dancing roles with Shirley Temple in the films of 1930s

Bill Bojangles Robinson was an American tap dancer, actor, and singer. He was regarded as the most highly-paid black entertainer in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. He is famously known for his dancing in a series of films with Shirley Temple in the 1930s.

He also starred in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather, which was based on his life for which he was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. He co-founded the New York Black Yankees baseball team in Harlem.

National Tap Dance Day is also celebrated on his birthday, i.e., May 25th, as declared by a joint resolution by the US Senate/House in 1989. He was also inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

4: Vernon and Irene Castle

Vernon CastleIrene Castle
BornMay 2, 1887April 7, 1893
DiedFebruary 15, 1918January 25, 1969
Vernon and Irene Castle
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Best known for: Popularizing dances such as the glide, the castle walk, the castle polka, the hesitation waltz, the tango, the maxixe, and the bunny hug

Vernon and Irene Castle were a husband-and-wife team of ballroom dancers and dance teachers. They appeared in many silent films in the early 20th century. They featured on Broadway in Irving Berlin’s “Watch Your Step”. On this show, they refined and revived Foxtrot’s jazz dancing.

They are known for reviving the popularity of modern dancing. They also popularized ragtime, jazz rhythms, and African American music for dance.

Vernon Castle sadly dies in a plane crash on a flight training base near Texas during World War I. Their legacy as lovers and jazz dancers lives on as some of the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

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5: The Nicholas Brothers

Fayard NicholasHarold Nicholas
BornOctober 20, 1914March 27, 1921
DiedJanuary 24, 2006July 3, 2000
The Nicholas Brothers
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Best known for: Ballet and dance techniques

The Nicholas Brothers were a duo of brothers, Fayard and Harold. They mastered various forms of dance and were known for their interpretation of “flash dancing” which was considered to be very acrobatic.

One of the brothers’ signature moves was to leapfrog down a long, broad flight of stairs and complete each step with a split. They are considered to be the greatest tap dancers of all time. They were also featured in “Stormy Weather” and “Jumpin’ Jive” in the 1940s. Their work in Stormy Weather is known to be one of the greatest dance routines ever captured on film.

They became a part of the jazz circuit during the Harlem Renaissance. As teachers-in-residence at Harvard University, they taught master classes in tap dance. Their impact on the industry is still relevant, and so they are considered some of the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

6: Frankie Manning

Frankie Manning
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Born: May 26, 1914, Jacksonville, Florida, United States

Died: April 27, 2009, Manhattan, New York, United States

Best known for: Hellzapoppin’ (1941), Great Performances (1971) and The Spirit Moves: A History of Black Social Dance on Film (1982)

Frank Manning was a legendary jazz dancer, instructor, and choreographer. He is considered to be one of the founders of Lindy Hop and one of the most famous jazz dancers. Lindy Hop is a very energetic form of the jazz dance style, “swing”. His interest in the world of dance stemmed from his mother’s formal ballroom-style dances like foxtrot and waltz.

He danced with Norma Miller, considered the Queen of Swing, in the 1930s and 1940s. He organized the top Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom into a group called “Whitney’s Lindy Hoppers.” He also served in the US Army during World War II and later formed a group called Congaroos.

He then went on to join the United States Postal Service. After living a life with such varied experiences, he passed away in 2009 making it a huge loss for the world of jazz dancers.

7: Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham
An image credit example from a CMG Worldwide

Born: June 22, 1909, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, United States

Died: May 21, 2006, Manhattan, New York, United States

Best known for: Run Li’l Chil’lun, The Emperor Jones, and Barrelhouse.

Katherine Dunham was an American choreographer and dancer who also had an interest in dance anthropology. Her dance style was inspired by Caribbean, South American, and African interpretations of dance.

She also gained popularity in modern dance apart from jazz dance because of her contributions to Broadway stage productions and operas. Thus, she was also known as “The matriarch and queen mother of black dance.”

She also starred in dance sequences in films such as “Carnival of Rhythm,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Casbah.” She was honored with the Kennedy Center Honor in 1983 and the National Medal of Arts in 1989. She published writings under the pseudonym, “Kaye Dunn.”

Her diverse portfolio in the field of dance and performing arts earned her the title of one of the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

8: Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire
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Born: May 10, 1899, Omaha, Nebraska, United States

Died: June 22, 1987, Los Angeles, California, United States

Best known for: On the Beach, The Pleasure of His Company, Top Hat, and Follow the Fleet

Fred Astaire is regarded as one of the most significant and famous jazz dancers of all time. His career in stage, film, and television spanned over 76 years, with more than 10 Broadway and West End musicals, 31 musical films, four television specials, and several recordings. He had an uncanny sense of rhythm, and his style was unique as a jazz dancer.

Fred Astaire was awarded an Honorary Academy Award, three Primetime Emmy Awards, one BAFTA Award, two Golden Globe Awards, and one Grammy Award. He was also honored with a Kennedy Center Honors and an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award.

He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1989 and the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1972. His impact on jazz dancing and contributions have earned him the title of “The greatest popular-music dancer of all time”.

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9: Jack Cole

Jack Cole
An image credit example from a Critical Dance

Born: April 27, 1911, New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States

Died: February 17, 1974, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, United States

Best known for: Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love, Ladies in Waiting, and “The Groom” in The Wedding of a Solid Sender

Jack Cole is widely regarded as the “Father of Theatrical Jazz Dancing” for codifying African-American jazz dance styles. He named his style “urban folk dance.”

He started as a modern dancer working in nightclubs, Broadway, and Hollywood films. His work as a choreographer and teacher helped train popular artists and choreographers like Gwen Verdon, Carol Haney, Bob Fosse, Alvin Alley, Jerome Robbins, and Buzz Miller. Jack Cole is also credited as the inventor of the idiom of American show dancing known as “theatrical jazz dance.”

Cole developed a mode of jazz-ethnic ballet, which is now a popular dance style seen in musicals, films, nightclub revues, television commercials, and music videos. His death marked the departure of one of the most famous jazz dancers of all time, whose influence is still prevalent in today’s world of jazz.

10: Luigi

Luigi
An image credit example from a Dance Parade

Born: March 20, 1925, Steubenville, Ohio, United States

Died: April 7, 2015, New York, United States

Best known for: Jazz dance techniques and describes as “the father of American jazz dancing” by The New York Times

Luigi was the professional and stage name for Eugene Louis Faccuito. The Luigi Warm-Up Technique is a training program that looks into body alignment, balance, core strength, and “feeling from the inside”, which is now a popular standard technique for teaching jazz and musical theater dance. Luigi developed the technique consisting of a series of ballet-based exercises to regain control of his body for his rehabilitation after suffering paralyzing injuries in a car accident.

Luigi’s perseverance and dedication to his art earned him respect and popularity in the world of jazz. His legacy lives on through his technique, making him one of the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

FAQs

Who is the most famous jazz dancer?

Jazz dancers like William Henry Lane, Josephine Baker, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Vernon and Irene Castle, The Nicholas Brothers, Frankie Manning, Katherine Dunham, Fred Astaire, Jack Cole, and Luigi are considered the most famous jazz dancers of all time.

Who are the six founding fathers of jazz dance?

These legends are regarded as the six founding members of jazz dance:

  • Gus Giordano
  • Luigi
  • Jack Cole
  • Matt Mattox
  • Bob Fosse
  • Katherine Dunham

Who is known as the father of jazz dance?

Jack Cole is regarded as the father of jazz dance. He made jazz dance more popular through his choreography and modern dance style.

Who made jazz dance famous?

Jack Cole made jazz dance famous and mainstream through his work on Broadway and Hollywood. His choreography for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Man of La Mancha” are still considered classics in theater.

Who were the first jazz dancers?

William Henry Lane is considered to be one of the first dancers to incorporate African influences into jazz dance.

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