Most Famous 16 Dancers of the Past Century

Dancing Icons from Ballet to Broadway and Tap to Pop

Over the past century many exceptional dancers from all styles of dance have graced dance floors, television, movies and the big stage with their talents.

But when it comes to individual dancers, it can be hard to say who has the best moves. Great dancing skill involves great poise, power and poignancy. 

The following list highlights some of the best dancers of the 20th century—selected for their fame, popularity and influence around the globe.

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Anna Pavlova (1881-1931)

Statue of Prima Ballerina Anna Pavlova on Top of the Victoria Palace Theatre in Victoria
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Famous Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova is best known for changing the look for ballet dancers, as she was small and thin, not the preferred body of a ballerina during her time. She is credited for creating the modern pointe shoe.

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Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948-present)

Solos With Piano Or Not... An Evening Of Music And Dance - Mikhail Baryshnikov
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Known as the best living male ballet dancer, Mikhail "Misha" Baryshnikov is a famous Russian dancer. In 1977, he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination for his work as "Yuri Kopeikine" in the film "The Turning Point." He also had a significant role in the last season of the television series "Sex and the City" and starred in the movie "White Nights" with American tap dancer Gregory Hines.

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Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993)

Rudolf Nureyev Rehearsing
Michael Ward / Getty Images

Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, nicknamed the "Lord of the Dance," is often regarded as one of the greatest ballet dancers. Nureyev had his early career with the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. He defected from the Soviet Union to Paris in 1961, despite KGB  efforts to stop him.  This was the first defection of a Soviet artist during the Cold War and it created an international sensation. He was director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989 and its chief choreographer until October 1992

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Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

Michael Jackson - File Photos By Kevin Mazur
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Pop star of the 1980s, Michael Jackson wowed audiences with eye-popping dance moves, notably one move that he popularized called the "moonwalk." Michael displayed an amazing talent for rhythm and dance at a very young age. He could catch a step, spin it around and slot it into a beat just as naturally as if it was a musical riff. Unlike others, his dancing was not just an accompaniment to words and music, it was a key part ​of his performance. For example, his performance of Billie Jean from 1983, where he mixed the fast moves with the loose. He would flick and retract his limbs like switchblades or snap out of a tornado spin into a perfectly poised toe-stand. And then, he would wheel out a moonwalk.

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Sammy Davis, Jr, (1925-1990)

Photo of Sammy DAVIS JNR
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American singer, dancer, actor and comedian Sammy Davis, Jr. was an entertainer remembered mostly for his tap dancing ability. His mother had been a tap dancer and his father a vaudevillian. He traveled the circuit with his father at the age of 3 and began tap dancing at the age of 4. After discharge from the Army in 1946, he rejoined his father and perfected his performance by doing flash-styled tap dancing and impressions of popular screen stars and singers, playing trumpet and drums, and singing to the accompaniment of Sammy Sr. and his Uncle Will Mastin's soft-shoe and tap as background. Years later, he befriended Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and became a member of their group of friends, known as the Rat Pack.

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Martha Graham (1894-1991)

Martha Graham Gestures at Press Conference
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Martha Graham was an American dancer and choreographer. She is known as the pioneer of modern dance. She dared to introduce new, modern dance moves to the world. Modern dance was viewed as a rebellion from the strict rules of ballet. Modern dance disregarded ballet's strict movement vocabulary, such as the limited set of movements that were considered proper to ballet, and stopped wearing corsets and pointe shoes in the search for greater freedom of movement. The Graham Technique reshaped American dance and is still taught worldwide.

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Fred Astaire (1899-1987)

Fred Astaire And Ginger Rogers
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Fred Astaire was a famous American film and Broadway dancer. As a dancer, he is best remembered for his sense of rhythm, his perfectionism, and as the dancing partner and on-screen romantic interest of Ginger Rogers, with whom he co-starred in a series of 10 Hollywood musicals. Beyond film and television, many dancers and choreographers, including Gene Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, Mikhail Baryshnikov and George Balanchine acknowledge Astaire's influence on them.

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Gregory Hines (1946-2003)

Gregory Hines
Richard Blanshard / Getty Images

Gregory Hines was an American dancer, actor, singer, and choreographer mostly known for his outstanding tap dancing abilities. Hines began tapping when he was 2 years old and began dancing semi-professionally at the age of 5. He appeared in several dance movies, including White Nights and Tap. Hines was an avid improviser. He did a lot of improvisation of tap steps, tap sounds, and tap rhythms alike. His improvisation was like that of a drummer, doing a solo and coming up with all sorts of rhythms. A laid back dancer, he usually wore nice pants and a loose-fitting shirt. Although he inherited the roots and tradition of the Black rhythmic tap, he experimented with a new style, fusing tap, jazz, new music and postmodern dance into his unique style.​

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Gene Kelly (1912-1996)

Leaping Sailors
Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

An American dancer, Gene Kelly is remembered for his highly energetic and athletic dancing style. He is one of the biggest stars and greatest innovators during Hollywood’s golden age of musicals. Kelly considered his own style to be a hybrid of various approaches to dance, including modern, ballet and tap. 

Kelly brought dance to theaters, utilizing every inch of his set, every possible surface, every sweeping camera angle to break out of the two-dimensional limitation of film. He is well-known for his performance in Singin' in the Rain. 

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Patrick Swayze (1952-2009)

Patrick Swayze At Ventura Farms
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Patrick Swayze was a well-known American actor, dancer, and singer-songwriter. His mother was a choreographer, dancer and dance instructor. In 1972, he moved to New York City to complete his formal dance training at the Harkness Ballet and Joffrey Ballet schools. His dance moves hit the mainstream when he wowed audiences in 1987 starring as a dance instructor in the popular movie Dirty Dancing.

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Gillian Murphy (1979-present)

American Ballet Theatre's Annual 'Stars Under TheStars: An Evening In Los Angeles' Event
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Gillian Murphy is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and Royal New Zealand Ballet. Murphy joined the American Ballet Theatre at the age of 17 as a member of the corps de ballet in August 1996, and was promoted to soloist in 1999 and then to principal dancer in 2002. 

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Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950)

Choreographer Nijinsky and Composer Ravel Sitting at Piano
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Vaslav Nijinsky was a Russian ballet dancer and one of the most gifted male dancers in ballet history. Nijinsky was well-known for his amazing ability to defy gravity with his magnificent leaps, and also for his ability of intense characterization. He is also remembered for dancing en pointe, a skill not commonly seen by male dancers. Nijinsky was paired in leading roles with legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova. 

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Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991)

Ballet Dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn
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Margot Fonteyn was an English ballet dancer, regarded by many as one of the greatest classical ballerinas of all time. She spent her entire career as a dancer with the Royal Ballet, eventually being appointed "Prima Ballerina Assoluta" of the company by Queen Elizabeth II. Fonteyn's ballet dancing was characterized by excellent technique, sensitivity to music, grace and passion. Her most famous role was Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.

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Michael Flatley (1958-present)

Famous dancer Michael Flatley
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Michael Flatley is an American Irish dancer, famous for producing Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. He began dancing lessons at age 11 and at age 17 was the first American to secure a World Irish Dance title at the World Irish Dance Championships. Flatley was taught dance by Dennis Dennehy at the Dennehy School of Irish Dance in Chicago, then went on to produce his own show. In May 1989, Flatley set a Guinness Book world record for tapping speed at 28 taps per second and subsequently broke his own record in 1998 with 35 taps per second.

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Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)

Famous dancer Isadora Duncan
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Isadora Duncan is considered by many to be the creator of modern dance. Her artistry and beliefs defied the traditional strictness of classical ballet. Duncan began her dancing career at a very early age by giving lessons in her home to other neighborhood children, and this continued through her teenage years. Breaking with convention, Duncan imagined she had traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art. She developed within this notion free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new American athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing.

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Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)

Famous dancer Ginger Rogers
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Ginger Rogers was an American actress, dancer and singer, widely known for performing in films and RKO's musical films, partnered with Fred Astaire. She appeared on stage, as well as on radio and television, throughout much of the 20th century. Rogers' entertainment career was born one night when a traveling vaudeville act came to town and needed a quick stand-in. She then entered and won a Charleston dance contest which allowed her to tour for six months. Then, she started her own vaudeville act, which traveled to New York City. She took radio singing jobs and landed a role in her Broadway debut of "Top Speed." Within two weeks, Rogers was discovered and chosen to star on Broadway in "Girl Crazy" by George and Ira Gershwin. Astaire was hired to help the dancers with their choreography. Her appearance in "Girl Crazy" made her an overnight star at the age of 19.