I saw a comment on a YouTube video (okay, granted, YouTube video…) “She’s a dancer, but what work did she really do?” Let’s consider that statement. What work did one of the dancer do? Not just a dancer, but one that freezes you, makes the movie melt away. She looks tangible on the screen, like she’s performing live just for you. Her movement is effortless, complete control softened by grace.
Her death was one of the first celebrity deaths I felt. I was at my first screen writing conference. It was one of the last days and the teacher started class by announcing Cyd Charisse had passed away. I felt it in my chest. I didn’t expect it to move me so much. Maybe it was because when I was little I would play and rewind her dance sequences over and over or watch movies because she was in them.
Most of the students (most of them older than me) had never heard of her. The teacher brought up a picture and projected it on the screen. There she reclined in the sparkly dress from “Singing in the Rain”, eyes piercing and smoldering out at us. Still wasn’t ringing any bells. Most of them hadn’t seen “Singing in the Rain”. Their film knowledge started in the ’80’s and ’90’s. They had seen clips. That was the one with the guy hanging off of the lamplight, right? Our teacher died a little inside. Yes, that was the one with “the guy” (I think Gene Kelly would have at least smiled about being “the guy”). Had they seen the fantasy sequence? Maybe… She brought up the scene where Cyd and Gene dance in the wind tunnel, she wields acres of fabric. It’s a ballet, full of control and emotion. They stared at it, no bells ringing.
“Show the leg part,” I thought and sent to the teacher. As if she received it, she brought up the clip. Gene Kelly’s hat drops and he drops to his knees…right at Cyd’s feet. Right where she wants him. She puts his hat on her toe and extends her leg all the way up, locking eyes with him all the way up.
Now they remember. That’s who she was. I think scenes like that one provoke the comment I saw on YouTube–“what work did she do?” She put a hat on her foot and extended her leg up. But you remember it, don’t you? It was jaw dropping without being gross. She can be viewed as a siren of the dance world, but she was so much more. Look up “Silk Stockings”. She dances in a pencil skirt and stilettos. One scene she is so in unison with Fred Astaire computers couldn’t perfect them more. Google or YouTube other clips like “Sombrero”. She’s naturally good and was born with that greatness, but you don’t become captivating without working at it. And it was always laced with joy. That was a dancer who truly loved to dance. It oozed out of her through her eyes, her smile. She was wonderful to watch. And that was the work she did. The work to make people who don’t understand dance say she’s not doing anything, because they don’t get all she is doing. The work to make people who understand or appreciate dance go, “Look at her. Look how flawless and smooth.” And finally the work to make dancers play and rewind her dance sequences to see what she’s doing, how she’s doing it, so they can capture it and make it their own.