"When you've danced with Cyd Charisse, you stay danced with." So said Fred Astaire, in tribute to the ability and allure of his last big-screen dancing partner. Cyd Charisse was the last great musical star to come out of MGM, and she barely made it to stardom before the musical genre began its decline. One of the greatest dancers ever to come out of Hollywood, Charisse worked in movies for almost a decade before being allowed to take center stage in a major musical feature; but when she did, she fairly exploded onscreen in The Band Wagon, Vincente Minnelli's greatest musical.
Charisse was born in Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, TX, and took to dancing at an early age, encouraged by her father, who loved the ballet. By age 14, she was dancing with the Ballet Russe under the more glamorous (and European-sounding) name Felia Sidorova -- the Sidorova came from her childhood nickname "Sid," which she carried into adulthood. She later studied dance in Los Angeles with Nico Charisse, who became her first husband. Charisse appeared both solo and with her first husband (working as "Nico and Charisse") in several early '40s "soundies" and played small roles in Mission to Moscow and Something to Shout About (both 1943), working under the name Lily Norwood. In 1945 Charisse was signed to MGM; Lily Norwood disappeared and Sid became Cyd, while the Charisse -- the one major legacy of the failed marriage -- remained.
Charisse appeared in some lesser studio productions during the second half of the '40s, of which the most notable was The Unfinished Dance, a notoriously bad MGM remake of a pre-World War II French film. At the time, Ann Miller was getting all of the really good high-profile dancer co-star roles in the studio's biggest songbook musicals, while Charisse got featured dancer roles in composer-tribute movies such as Till the Clouds Roll By (based loosely on the career of Jerome Kern) and Words and Music (based loosely on Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's careers). During the late '40s, she married singer Tony Martin, a union that would last more than 50 years. Charisse had the chance to work opposite Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, but turned it down as she and Martin were starting a family, a decision that she never regretted, even if it cheated film audiences of a brilliant showcase for her work. Finally, in 1952, she made it into a frontline studio production in as prominent a role as a dancer could possibly have without dialogue, playing the vamp who appears in the middle of the "Broadway Ballet" segment of Singin' in the Rain.
In 1953, with the help of Fred Astaire and director Vincente Minnelli, Charisse emerged a full-blown star in The Band Wagon. The movie, one of the greatest musicals ever made, was even more impressive as a total vehicle for Charisse -- her eight years at the studio had allowed her to absorb a fair amount of acting training, which made her just as impressive in her dramatic, romantic, and comedic scenes as she was when she danced. And when she and Astaire danced, it was literally poetry in motion, before that phrase was overused. Charisse got to work alongside Gene Kelly again in Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather, in which she again got to showcase her acting ability (her singing was dubbed by vocalist India Adams in most of her movies). She got to do one more major Hollywood musical, Silk Stockings (1957), acting and dancing opposite her greatest dancing partner, Fred Astaire, in a screen adaptation of Cole Porter's last great stage musical, before the musical genre disappeared.
During the 1960s, she moved her career to Europe for one last dazzling musical film, Black Tights, and onto television, where Charisse became an Emmy-winning performer, and then onto the stage. Luckily for Charisse, she was a good enough actress to credibly work in straight drama and comedy, and was so striking a physical presence that she kept her career going well into the 1970s, including a successful nightclub act with Tony Martin. She scored a hit in the Australian production of No No Nanette in 1972, and she and Martin authored a joint-autobiography, The Two of Us, in 1976. Charisse published a successful workout book in the early '90s, and remains one of the most beloved performers from the world of Hollywood musicals. In 2000, she received the first Nijinsky Award from Princess Caroline of Monaco for her lifelong contribution to dance.