8 Pioneering Women in Dance Music
Women are often disregarded in discussions about dance music, but there are so many of them who have helped it become what it is today. Of course, we wouldn’t have dance music without disco queens like Donna Summer and Sharon White, or even the mother of hip-hop, Sylvia Robinson.
Let's take the time to recognize eight (of the many) women who pioneered dance music.
If we’re talking about dance music, we have to bring it back to electronic music, which began decades before. And one of the vital tools that so many genres even outside of dance music use is the synthesizer. Wendy Carlos studied music composition in 1962 at Columbia University and went on to work with electronic musicians and technicians at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Here, Carlos helped develop the first Moog Synthesizer. Carlos went on to win three GRAMMYs for her work synthesizing classical works by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Carlos was not only notable for her technical mind, but she also gave a voice to transgender issues. In 1979, she revealed that she had been living as a woman since 1968 and had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1972.
Dance music came into fruition with the birth of house music in Chicago, so we couldn’t go without mentioning The First Lady of House Music, Kym Mazelle. The singer-songwriter attended university in Chicago at Mundelein College, where she studied Entertainment Media Management. A year after she graduated in 1979, she had her first hit, a disco anthem called “Taste My Love.” As disco evolved into what we now know as house music, you can also hear the evolution in her later tracks, solidifying Mazelle as one of house music’s trailblazers.
Mazelle’s music really popped off in the UK—not the US—being predominantly featured on pirate radio, since mainstream radio stations didn’t want to showcase dance music. The rise of pirate radio eventually changed the landscape of the programming model for commercial giants like BBC radio.
Annie Nightingale. The legendary radio host and television broadcaster made her way onto BBC Radio in 1970 and is still there to this day, making her its longest-serving presenter.
Nightingale moved on to cover dance music in 1994, and now hosts one of the most influential dance music radio shows after her own name, Annie Nightingale presents…. The host-slash-DJ extraordinaire has always championed the advancement of women in music. She contributed to the long-running radio program on the BBC, Women’s Hour. Nightingale has also spoken out against the sexism she faced while on the job.
Dance music would also be nothing without Detroit techno. Jennifer Witcher, famously known as DJ Minx, has championed the genre’s Detroit roots since the 90s. The multi-talented artist has also hosted radio shows, performed at the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and was recognized by Mixmag as one of the “20 Women Who Have Shaped The History of Dance Music.”
DJ Minx is also a dedicated community organizer. In 1996, she founded a collective for female DJs in Detroit called Women on Wax. The organization expanded to include a record label in 2001. According to its website her goal is to amplify “the talent of local and global artists to create electronic music deeply rooted in the unique rhythm of Detroit.”
Word-renowned Jordana LeSense (formerly 1.8.7. but now goes by Jordana) is one of the faces of Drum ‘n Bass in the United States. THEM reports her beautiful sentiments on the genre: “For her, drum & bass became a conduit to the ‘web of interconnected consciousness’ that is humanity.”
Active since the mid-90s, Jordana is well-respected not only for her impact on dance music history but also for her vocal criticism of the shortcomings of the scene and the hate crimes she’s received as a trans woman. She has also gained notoriety for working alongside huge names like Blondie, Lady Sovereign, and more.
When we talk about pioneers, we have to talk about SOPHIE. The avant-garde artist revolutionized dance music in a way that transcended genre. She is considered to be one of the founders of hyperpop. Pitchfork describes the Scottish producer as one who “ molded electronic music into bracingly original avant-garde pop.”
SOPHIE was so influential that when she tragically passed in 2021, people from all music communities came together to grieve.
International DJ Smokin Jo, née Joanne Joseph, first got on the decks in the ‘90s, as a turntablist. Not too long after, she secured a residency at London nightclub Trade and performed at Space Ibiza, which certified her spot as DJ Mag’s #1 DJ in 1992. To this day, she is the only female DJ to have ever received the honor.
When UNIIQU3 announced she was the September 2021 cover of DJ Mag, the whole club music community felt the win. Club music is often ignored in dance music, but we absolutely could not go without recognizing Jersey Club Queen UNIIQU3.
While Jersey Club itself had been established since the late ‘90s, UNIIQU3 held an integral part in contributing to its popularity in mainstream dance music, as well as maturing with performances at GHE20G0TH1K parties, an event series that helped launch the post-club (or deconstructed club) sound.