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Fred Astaire 1952 | Photo Getty Images Fred Astaire 1952 | Photo Getty Images

Looking Back: A Dance Icon Video Tour

Editor’s note: DancePulp would like to welcome Leah O’Donnell to our Guest contributors. We are excited to share Leah’s experienced voice with you.

Every dancer has an idol. Even our idols can trace their own influences through history. As far as our family trees can be traced, so can our artistic trees. Along with our dance bags, we carry bits of movement and style, courtesy of generations past, from studio to stage to set. The influences of these late artists are still vividly evident in the media around us, from pop stars to musicals to postmodern dance.

Countless dancers, known and unknown, practiced, sweat, faced rejection, and met their dreams before our time. They built the roads that ultimately helped to shape the dance community as it exists today.
Leah O’Donnell

Of course dance like any language is alive and morphing. We continue to add ideas and flair; to create new dialects altogether. Even so, we seem to embody many nuances of those who came first.

Here are three iconic dancers and one choreographer who have set the stage for much of what you see today. The links below will show each of their distinctive influences, threading from one era into the next. So when you find yourself in that blissful place, trying on a dance that fits just so, perhaps you’ll think of those who sewed the seams.

LOIE FULLER 1862-1928

Loie Fuller was the first expatriate American dancer. She introduced Isadora Duncan, “the mother of modern dance” to Parisian audiences. Duncan was a member of Fuller’s company “Loie Fuller and her muses”. But before that, Fuller had begun as a child actress. She joined the burlesque circuit in her twenties, as a skirt dancer, and started to experiment with the effect that gas lighting had on her silk skirt as she twirled and manipulated the fabric. She mixed colors herself and was considered an innovator of stage lighting. She was a scientist in her own right as well; a member of the French Astronomical Society, and a close friend of Marie Curie. Of her new spin on skirt dancing, one reviewer said “…the audience…insists upon seeing her pretty piquant face before they can believe that the lovely apparition is really a woman.”

Along with our dance bags, we carry bits of movement and style, courtesy of generations past…
Leah O’Donnell

Loie Fuller in “Danse Serpentine” 1896:

Lotta Svalberg, 2007:

2011-2012 Missoni Fashion Campaign:

“The Swan” film:

TV Show “America’s Got Talent”: Silhouette dancers play with light:


The son of a film actress, Busby Berkeley was the noted director and choreographer of numerous Broadway shows and Hollywood movie musicals. He was known for using several chorus girls to create lavish dance scenes with kaleidoscope-like patterns, often filmed from a bird’s eye view.

A collection of Busby Berkeley clips including 42nd Street, Going Through The Roof, Gold Diggers, Dames, I only Have Eyes For You, and others:

Music video for “Mad World” by Gary Jules, 2004:

Adele’s music video, “Chasing Pavements,” 2008:

Momix Dance Company, featured in a commercial, 2010:

FRED ASTAIRE 1899-1987

Fred Astaire started out touring vaudeville, and eventually made it on Broadway with his dance partner and sister, Adele. Hollywood didn’t accept him until he was in his thirties, when Adele married he decided to try again for film. He was known to be a perfectionist though he appeared utterly effortless on screen. Whenever possible, he requested that his dance scenes be filmed in a single shot with the dancers in full view. “Either the camera will dance, or I will.”

Fred Astaire’s famous ceiling dance in Royal Wedding, 1951:

Lionel Ritchie Dancing on the Ceiling music video, 1986:

Bingo Commercial

Goldie Hawn rejects gravity in Everyone Says I Love You, 1996:

Fred Astaire was also adamant that his dance sequences actually tell the story, rather than simply inserting dances in where they might make sense in a plot.

Fred Astaire with Rita Hayworth in You Never Were Lovelier, 1942:

Marion Cotillard and Daniel Day Lewis in “Nine,” 2009:

Fred Astaire in Blue Skies, “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” 1946:

Michael Jackson’s version in the 1970’s (2:51):


Josephine Baker was much more than a highly celebrated dancer.  She was born into deep poverty, the daughter of a laundress and a vaudeville drummer in St. Louis. Aside from a dancer (and a singer and an actress and a writer), she would become an expatriate and a secret agent for France during their resistance to Nazi Germany. She smuggled secret messages with invisible ink on her sheet music.

In the 1950s and 60s, she dedicated herself to fighting for racial equality. She refused to perform for segregated audiences, and when Martin Luther King Jr. died, Coretta Scott King asked her to take his place as the unofficial spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Baker turned down the offer, because she also had children whom she deemed too young to lose their mother.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were known admirers of Baker’s. Pablo Picasso said that Baker had “…legs of paradise” and “ …a smile to end all smiles”.

To list all the singers, actors, dancers, companies, and causes for which she, the first black superstar, has paved the way for, would be an endless task.

Josephine Baker, 1927:

Diana Ross paying tribute to Josephine Baker:

Josephine Baker’s famous banana dance at the “Follies Berges,” 1927:

Beyonce’s version at Fashion Rocks, 2006:

Countless dancers, known and unknown,  practiced, sweat, faced rejection, and met their dreams before our time. They built the roads that ultimately helped to shape the dance community as it exists today. By osmosis, by accident, or by practice every generation catches a few things from its predecessors.

Though there are new media growing left and right, new expectations and new audiences, so much of what we’ve inherited is tangible still. Erase these people, and the steps we are taught, the many ways in which we embellish, and the standards that are set today, would be anyone’s guess.

Post by Leah O'Donnell

From Ann Arbor Michigan, Leah came to New York to study at The Joffrey Ballet School and The New School University. She has since danced with The Metropolitan Opera and as an original cast member of Jerry Mitchell’s hit musical “Peepshow”. Leah has performed with recording artists including Beyonce Knowles, Justin Timberlake and Nicki Minaj, in films including Across the Universe, Away We Go, and The Smurfs, and on television shows including Saturday Night Live, Gossip Girl and 30 Rock. She lived for six months in Athens, Greece dancing for their biggest pop star, Anna Vissi. Leah has been featured in Allure magazine, on the cover of Philadelphia Weekly, and on a billboard in Times Square. Leah is also a freelance writer.

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