Born: March 8, 1921 (Amarillo, Texas)
Died: June 17, 2008 (Los Angeles, California)

Beautiful Dynamite
You will not find much scandal in the life of this popular entertainer unless you object to a woman making a successful career for herself by use of her body. David Thompson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (William Morrow & Co: 1975) calls Charisse "perhaps the greatest female movie dancer." Dale Thomajan echoes the sentiment enthusiastically in his movie book From Cyd Charisse to Psycho (Walker Books: 1992):
Were God a mere artisan he would have halted production after finishing Esther Williams... But God is an artist and so he created Cyd Charisse (with the assistance, to be sure, of the MGM makeup department) - he wanted, you see, to add heavenly grace to the formula...What Cyd Charisse had that no other dancer had was erotic chic, and this, combined with her obvious taste and talent, is what made her not merely a great performer but an icon..... Charisse wears clothes so staggeringly well that it's a toss-up whether one hopes she will shed the stunning black lace cocktail dress she's wearing or leave it on.

Her dancing partner Fred Astaire called her "beautiful dynamite" and wrote in his 1959 autobiography Steps in Time (Harper & Brothers: 1959) that "When you've danced with her, you stay danced with." Ken Wlaschin, author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World's Great Movie Stars (Harmony Books: 1979) wrote, "Cyd Charisse has two great claims to cinema immortality: she was the finest female dancer on film and she had the greatest legs ever to grace a movie."

Nobody seems to have an unkind word for this woman who has appeared in nearly 40 films. In October 1997 she was "Star of the Month" at Turner Movie Classics. In February 1999 she received the inaugural "First Light Early Light" award honoring living dance masters given by Loyola Marymount College.

Currently in her seventies Charisse told an interviewer in 1997 that she maintains her slender figure by eating melon, Raisin Bran, orange juice and coffee for breakfast. But she is not a vegetarian. True to her Texas origins she likes steak for dinner. "The minute I feel tired, I really feel that [steak] helps me. I don't know any vegetables or fruit or grains that can replace a steak."

She seems to be a woman who is completely comfortable with her identity, despite the fact that she's used at least several names for herself. She was born Tula Ellice Finklea (the dates of her birth vary between 1921 and 1924). Since her older brother had difficulty with the word "Sis" her family nickname became "Sid." She was Felia Siderova and Maria Istomina when she danced with the Ballet Russe. The "Charisse" part of her name came from her marriage to Nico Charisse in 1939. In Hollywood she made two pictures in 1943 using the name Lily Norwood (her mother's name was Lela Norwood.) By 1944 she was professionally known as Cyd Charisse.

She became a dancer when she took ballet lessons in Texas as an eight-year-old. The lessons were part of her therapy for a mild case of polio. Her father, Earnest owned a jewelry store in Amarillo and he was a ballet enthusiast. Charisse's mother Lela was a housewife and mother of two. At age 13 Cyd went to California and began ballet lessons with Nico Charisse. Five years later, just after her father's death, Cyd married her teacher. Nico was more than 15 years older than her and it is likely that he was a replacement father-figure for the young dancer. A son was born in 1940. Cyd and Nico were divorced in 1947 and in 1948 Charisse married singer Tony Martin. Cyd gave birth to another son in 1950. In between motherhood and wifehood Charisse managed a successful movie career.

Her movie career essentially began in 1944 with her appearance in the film Ziegfeld Follies. A dozen movies later she danced with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (1952). Her career really took off with the release of the 1953 Vincente Minnelli backstage musical The Band Wagon. The film itself was nominated for three Academy Awards (Writing, Costumes, Music Score). Charisse was not a singer so a singer called India Adams dubbed her songs.

Charisse has received numerous awards but she has not won an Oscar. And while her career flourished in the 1950s it did begin to fade soon after. Her appeal was based on her talent as a dancer and her physical beauty. Tony Thomas writes in That's Dancing (Harry Abrams: 1984) that Charisse's "graceful dancing accounts only partly for her success; she had going for her a sex appeal that was both appealingly dignified and smoldering." While others have claimed that Charisse's popularity declined because the musical genre faded it seems not coincidental that in the youth-rage of the 1960s the forty-something Charisse became a less marketable commodity.

Cyd Charisse at the Cosmic Baseball Association

Cyd Charisse was drafted by the Paradise Pisces from the Texas Ballet Dancers League in 1999. Along with fellow rookie pitcher Vanessa Williams, Charisse led the Pisces to an Overleague pennant. With her strong and beautiful legs she's a fastball specialist with ball velocity consistently hovering around 100 miles per hour. When batters do catch up with her fastball they frequently pull the ball on the ground. In Manager Anais Nin's opinion Charisse is the team's best fielding pitcher.

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Cyd Charisse Season 2000 Plate
Published: March 10, 2000
Updated: October 31, 2000; June 18, 2008
Copyright © 2000 by the Cosmic Baseball Association