Arguably the greatest female dancer in Hollywood history, Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, on March 8, 1921. As a girl, she became known as Sid, her brother’s mispronunciation of “sis.” At eight, she began taking ballet lessons. Five years later, she started training with the dancer Nico Charisse in Los Angeles. She was asked to join the prestigious Ballet Russe in 1937. Following company custom, she was billed under the Russian-sounding names Natacha Tulaelis and Felia Siderova. While on a tour of Europe, Finklea married Charisse in 1939. Before their divorce in 1947, the couple had one son. In 1948 she married singer Tony Martin, with whom she had another child, also a boy.
Leaving Europe after the outbreak of World War II, Charisse returned to Hollywood and started appearing in films under the name Lily Norwood. After performing small dance roles in such films as Something to Shout About (1943) and Thousands Cheer (1943), she was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1946. Now billed as Cyd Charisse, she paid her dues as a background dancer in several films. Among the films in which she was featured more prominently were Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), in which she danced with Gower Champion, and Unfinished Dance (1947). Charisse was also called upon to play ethnic roles in such films as Fiesta (1947) and Sombrero (1953). Charisse’s break came in 1952, when she appeared in the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain.
In the film’s “Broadway Melody” sequence, she memorably portrayed a femme fatale in a dance with Gene Kelly. In 1953, she was paired with MGM’s other great male dancer, Fred Astaire, in The Band Wagon (1953). Common to many of her films, the script cast her a sophisticated, elegant woman who had be persuaded to abandon her pretensions before she could be loved. The movie featured one of her most famous dances recorded on film—the “Dancing in the Dark” ballet choreographed by Astaire. He once aptly described his dance partner as “beautiful dynamite.”During the golden age of the MGM musical, Charisse also found choice roles in Brigadoon (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and Silk Stockings (1957), which reunited her with Astaire.
Although a far better dancer than actress, she also appeared in nonmusical dramas, among them Party Girl (1958) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). As Charisse’s film career faded, she started appearing in nightclubs with her husband. She also performed on stage in regional theater and summer stock. Charisse, however, did not make her Broadway debut until 1992, when she was invited to join the cast of the two-year-old musical hit Grand Hotel. At 71, she told People magazine that dancing on Broadway “was one goal I hadn’t achieved, and it’s exciting to do it now.” The same year, Charisse won the Gypsy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Dancer’s Society.
Billman, Larry. “Charisse, Cyd.” International Encyclopedia of Dance, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen, vol. 1, pp. 108–109. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Martin, Tony, and Cyd Charisse. The Two of Us. New York: Mason/Charter, 1976.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Band Wagon (1953). Warner Studios, VHS, 2000.
Brigadoon (1954). Warner Studios, DVD/VHS, 2000.