Cyd Charisse, who recently passed away and is justly lauded as Hollywood’s best, and certainly sexiest, dancer, conveys another intriguing quality in “The Band Wagon” (1953) when she goes “Dancing in the Dark.”
Teamed here with Fred Astaire, the brief number is a courtship dance. The two characters, a well-known hoofer and a rising ballet star, must sort out their differences to make their Broadway show in the works a success.
Miss Charisse, a classically trained ballet dancer in the Russian tradition, joined the Ballet Russe when she was still in her teens. Reportedly she was encouraged by her father to take up ballet lessons as a child in part because she had been frail after contracting polio. It was thought that ballet would strengthen her.
Her strength is one of the most remarkable qualities exhibited in the lovely “Dancing in the Dark” number, a slow and romantic pas de deux. Here her trademark long, sexy legs are mostly covered by the mid-calf white dress, whose accordion pleats swish every now and then to give us the briefest glimpse of thigh. No high heels in this number; she dances in flats, gray ballet slippers. No draping her slinky body over her partner; it is nearly a full minute into the dance before she and Astaire even touch each other. No jazz beat, no revealing costume, yet it is one of the most sensual dances she has ever performed.
And though we see less of her body, we seem to see more of Cyd. We see her self-contained world where dance is a most revealing self-expression. Her confidence is riveting. She does not seem to be playing to the audience as much as she seems to be pleasing herself. It’s one of those rare moments were we get to watch a person doing what that person was born to do.
Perhaps because her legs are covered, our attention is diverted more to the straight line of her back, and her broad shoulders as her arms are extended wide in a kind of yoga “warrior” pose. It is a picture of strength. Her white sleeves are rolled up at the elbow, like a person who has work to do. There is power in her movements as much as grace, and in a of the few moves it almost appears as if she is leading Astaire in the dance, holding his arm extended in her hand clasp, and bringing him forward. It is feminine strength, displayed as it never was by any other female dancer of the era. The frail child is gone. The physically strong woman remains.
Their movement together is precise, flowing, and self-controlled. One can see the athleticism of the ballet dancer, a strength and control of the body an Olympic decathlon athlete would admire.
They have created one of the most intimate, and most lovely moments in film. Watch it again here on YouTube.