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Dancer, actress Cyd Charisse dies

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Cyd Charisse, the leggy beauty whose balletic grace made her a memorable partner for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in classic MGM musicals like "Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon" and "Brigadoon," died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. She was believed to be 86.

Her death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was apparently caused by a heart attack, said her agent, Scott Stander.

Charisse came of age in a sparkling era of Hollywood musicals, and though she had some dramatic film roles, it was in musicals that she achieved her lasting renown. That fame later helped power a successful song-and-dance partnership with her husband, Tony Martin, in nightclubs and on television.

In his 1959 memoir, "Steps in Time," Astaire called Charisse "beautiful dynamite." She was a striking presence on film: slender and graceful with jet black hair. She stood 5 feet 6, but in high heels and full-length stockings — a familiar costume for her — she seemed even taller.

She made her film debut in 1943 under the name Lily Norwood in "Something to Shout About," with Don Ameche and Janet Blair, and then spent almost a decade performing in small roles and sometimes anonymously before she got her big break. That came with "Singin' in the Rain," released in 1952.

Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the film established her as one of Hollywood's most glamorous and seductive talents.

Set during the dawn of talking pictures, "Singin' in the Rain" starred Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen. Charisse appeared in only one of the movie's many indelible dance sequences, but one was enough. During the "Broadway Melody Ballet," opposite Kelly, she was both sultry vamp and diaphanous dream girl.

A year later, "The Band Wagon" brought Charisse her first leading role. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, with a book by Comden and Green and songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, the film starred Astaire, Charisse, Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray.

Astaire played a fading Hollywood song-and-dance man hoping to make a comeback on Broadway who finds himself cast in a show opposite a snooty ballerina (Charisse). The couple do not see eye-to-eye until they take a nighttime carriage ride through a moonlit Central Park and wind up embracing languorously to the strains of "Dancing in the Dark."

One of the most famous sequences from the film, if not in the history of dance on film, is "The Girl Hunt Ballet," in which Charisse plays a sultry vamp to Astaire's private eye stage character.

In "Brigadoon" (1954), also directed by Minnelli and adapted from the 1947 Broadway show by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Kelly and Van Johnson played two American tourists who stumble on a mysterious Scottish village that materializes only once every 100 years. Kelly falls hard for a beautiful villager, Fiona (Charisse). They danced to "The Heather on the Hill."

Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas. Though some sources say she was born on March 8, 1921, her agent said the year was 1922. She began taking dance lessons as a little girl. Her many name changes began, so the story goes, when her brother had trouble pronouncing "sister" and settled for "Sid."

While still a teenager, she was sent to California for professional dance training and quickly became a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a touring troupe, adopting the name Felia Sidorova. She was on a European tour when she met Nico Charisse, a handsome young dancer and dance instructor. They married in Paris when she was 18. In 1942, they had a son, Nicky.

By the early 1940s, Charisse had been spotted by studio scouts and her first film roles — as Lily Norwood — followed. (She also appeared anonymously in 1943 as a ballerina in "Mission to Moscow.")

In 1946, MGM, by then the king of Hollywood musicals, signed her to a contract and, in quick order, gave her minor roles in several films, including "The Harvey Girls," "Till the Clouds Roll By" and "Ziegfeld Follies," in which she danced a brief opening sequence with Astaire. When she was chosen to appear in "Ziegfeld Follies," the producer Arthur Freed preferred the name Charisse to Norwood and changed the spelling of Sid to Cyd.

The next year, Charisse played a ballerina once again in "The Unfinished Dance," which featured the child star Margaret O'Brien as an ambitious dance student.

Charisse was reunited with Kelly in the 1955 Comden and Green musical "It's Always Fair Weather," and was teamed with Fred Astaire in "Silk Stockings" (1957). In the latter, an update of the Greta Garbo vehicle "Ninotchka," she played an icy Soviet functionary who is sent to Paris where she meets and is romanced by a Hollywood producer (Astaire). Needless to say, she melts for Fred as they sing and dance to Cole Porter songs like "All of You" and "Fated to Be Mated." It was the twilight of the Hollywood musical.

Charisse's marriage to Nico Charisse ended in divorce in 1947. She married Martin in 1948. He survives her, along with their son, Tony Jr., and her son, Nicky, by her first marriage.

In November 2006, Charisse was one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts presented by President Bush in a White House ceremony.

Looking back on her work with Kelly and Astaire during a 2002 interview in The New York Times, Charisse said that her husband, Martin, always knew whom she had been dancing with. "If I was black and blue," she said, "it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn't have a scratch."

In a 1992 interview with The Times, she remembered dancing with Astaire to Michael Kidd's demanding choreography in "Silk Stockings" and said admiringly, "Fred moved like glass."

As it turned out, "Silk Stockings" was her last major musical. She appeared in a few more movies, chiefly in dramatic roles in films like "Party Girl" (1958) and "Two Weeks in Another Town" (1962). She and Martin took their nightclub act to Las Vegas and other cities. Her last film was an Italian drama, "Private Screenings" (1989).

Charisse made her belated Broadway debut in 1992 in "Grand Hotel," when she replaced Liliane Montevecchi in the leading role of a famous but aging ballerina in 1920s Berlin. "I think that in all my dancing I play a role," she told The Times that year. "To me, that's what dancing is about. It's not just steps."