Cyd Charisse stood only 5’6”, but it was all leg. It took just a slow camera pan up her soon-to-be-famous gams during her brief, silent performance in Singin’ in the Rain (pictured, with Gene Kelly) to make her a star. Charisse, who died yesterday at 86, seemed to shine for only a short period in a handful of films, but that was enough. Her presence as a dancer and female lead in a handful of classic MGM musicals from the ’50s (most notably, opposite Gene Kelly in Brigadoon and It’s Always Fair Weather and opposite Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings) is indelible. Unlike many of the other MGM leading ladies, she wasn’t a hoofer or a tap dancer; she was classically trained (having joined the Ballet Russe at 14) and displayed an elegance and an eroticism that were rare in 1950s musicals (and thereafter, for that matter).
Her big-screen dance career was short, though she remained a graceful, regal presence for decades in TV guest spots and finally on Broadway (where she made her debut in 1992 as the aging ballerina in Grand Hotel). Still, she’ll probably be best remembered for dancing the role of the femme fatale who distracts Gene Kelly in Singin’s “Broadway Melody” sequence, or for the parodic twist on that type in the Mickey Spillane-inspired “Girl Hunt” number in The Band Wagon, where she’s pursued by Astaire. In his memoir, Astaire called Charisse “beautiful dynamite” and wrote, “When you’ve danced with her, you stay danced with.” That seems as fitting an epitaph as she could have asked for.