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Cyd Charisse, 86; Actress Danced Across Silver Screen

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 18, 2008; Page B05

Cyd Charisse, 86, an actress and dancer whose mile-long legs made her a memorable partner with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in several top musicals of the 1950s, died June 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after an apparent heart attack.

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Astaire called Ms. Charisse "beautiful dynamite," adding, "When you've danced with her, you stay danced with." Their elegant duet of "Dancing in the Dark" in "The Band Wagon" (1953) was a peerless display of romance set to music. In another sequence, she proved dangerous as a barroom seductress in a satire of Mickey Spillane.

Her breakthrough had occurred a year earlier in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) opposite Kelly. She was not the star of the movie and in fact had no dialogue. But she was a bewitching presence in the "Broadway Melody" finale, playing both a dangerously leggy gun moll in a green flapper dress and the chaste dancer in a white tutu whose long scarf floats in the air with the aid of a wind machine.

The performance elevated the Texas beauty to the front rank of movie musical performers and showcased her ability to portray both sizzling seduction and the personification of cold, elusive elegance.

She had another hit toward the end of 1952, "Sombrero," in which she danced around an Aztec idol in an alluring scene on a mountain side.

Ms. Charisse became Kelly's co-star in "Brigadoon" (1954) and "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955) and played a Russian efficiency expert opposite Astaire in "Silk Stockings" (1957), a charmless remake of "Ninotchka" with Ms. Charisse in the Greta Garbo role.

At 5-feet-6-inches -- taller in heels -- she was the picture of balletic grace, whether her partner was the athletic Kelly or the aristocratic Astaire.

Kelly, she told the New York Times, "was more of a physical dancer. He pulled you around and was strong enough to do lifts."

Astaire, she said, "moved like glass. Physically, it was easy to dance with him."

The admiration was mutual. "She wasn't a tap dancer, she's just beautiful, trained, very strong in whatever we did," Astaire said in a 1983 interview. "When we were dancing, we didn't know what time it was."

She was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Tex., on March 8, 1922. Her father, a jeweler, encouraged her early interest in ballet and built her a practice bar and a full-length mirror in her bedroom, in part to stretch her muscles after a brush with polio. She began dance lessons at age 8.

The family moved to Hollywood, where, at 18, she married her ballet instructor, Nico Charisse. (The marriage ended in divorce.)

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