This fourth post of the week-long series in honor of Women’s History Month is devoted to women in the world of dance.
Mama Snail drew this postcard at a flamenco show in Sevilla, Spain
I shared this postcard and Josephine Baker’s inspiring story in the Black History Month post in February, but you don’t mind if we worship her again, do you?
Josephine Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture (Zouzou 1934), to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-famous entertainer.
Born in St. Louis in 1906, at the age of eight, Josephine Baker endured abuse as a domestic servant. At twelve, she dropped out of school, living in cardboard shelters and scavenging food from garbage cans. At thirteen, she married a Pullman porter. The unhappy marriage didn’t last long and things brightened when she was fifteen and her street corner dancing won her recruitment into a vaudeville show. She had another short-lived marriage as of 1921, when she became Mrs. Baker. After the divorce, she kept Baker as her last name to maintain consistency, as her career was taking off. Upon hitting New York City in the Harlem Renaissance, she became “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” In 1925, it was on to Paris where she became a one-woman show, banana skirt, pet cheetah and all.
In 1937, Baker married a Frenchman (a Jew) and became a French citizen. Throughout WWII, she supplied information to the French Resistance, harbored refugees, and obtained others visas and passports. After the war she performed at Buchenwald for the liberated prisoners who were too frail to be moved.
When performing back in the United States in the 1950′s, she insisted upon integrated audiences, playing a large part in desegregating shows in Las Vegas. Active with the NAACP, Baker spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Coretta Scott King asked Baker if she would take Dr. King’s leadership position. Baker considered the prospect, but ultimately replied that her twelve adopted children were”too young to lose their mother.” Her children were from all over the world. She called them the “Rainbow Tribe.”
Never widely accepted in the States before the Civil Rights Movement, in 1973, Baker finally opened at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation. Back in Paris in 1975, she performed a retrospective show celebrating her fifty years in show biz. Financed by her long-time supporter Princess Grace along with Prince Rainier and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opening-night admirers included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later, Baker was found in a coma, lying in her bed among newspapers with glowing reviews of her show. She died shortly after. Upon her funeral, Josephine Baker locked up the streets of Paris one more time.
Cyd Charisse with Fred Astaire
Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas in 1922. Her nickname became “Sid” because her brother could not pronounce “sis.” She contracted polio as a young child, and her father, a balletomane (some accounts say secretly, suggesting he was a closeted gay man), thought she could take dance lessons to regain her strength. She began these lessons at age six. During an extended family vacation to Los Angeles when Sid was twelve, she began studying ballet with the acclaimed dancer and choreographer Adolph Bolm and another former member of the Ballets Russes, Bronislava Nijinska, Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister. She also studied with a handsome young dancer named Nico Charisse.
At age fourteen, Sid was accepted to the training school of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo–the Ballets Russes under Colonel Wassily de Basil after Sergei Diaghilev’s passing. Upon a visit to the school, de Basil noticed her and invited her to join the touring company. On tour, Sid Finklea became “Felia Siderova” and then “Maria Istomina.” When the show was in France, “Istomina” reconnected with her old teacher Nico Charisse. They eloped in Paris in 1939 when our heroine was seventeen. (After their divorce in 1947, Charisse kept her new last name, but married big band singer Tony Martin, with whom she remained for the rest of her life.)
With the outbreak of World War II, Sid Charisse moved back to Los Angeles. Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo star David Lichine, who’d become a choreographer for Hollywood musicals, offered her a dance role in 1943’s “Something to Shout About” by Columbia Pictures, for which she used the name Lily Norwood. MGM choreographer Robert Alton, who’d discovered Gene Kelly, took notice. Alton set her up in a brief routine with Fred Astaire in 1945’s “Ziegfeld Follies.” The performance won her a seven-year contract with MGM where she was the resident ballet dancer and became known as Cyd Charise. In 1946, she went onto her first speaking part alongside Judy Garland in “The Harvey Girls.” She would appear in about forty films and some of Hollywood’s most magical dance sequences over the course of a career spanning nearly fifty years. She passed away in 2008, after receiving the American National Medal of the Arts and Humanities.
Cyd Charise’s story brings me to tomorrow’s Women’s History Month post: Women in Film. See you then!