Rita Moreno has won two Emmy awards, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, making her one of only 12 people to win all four. Out of her EGOT grand slam, Moreno considers her 1962 Oscar for the role of Anita in West Side Story her most cherished honor. After all, she says, “It was my very first!” But it was not, however, her first movie musical. She appeared in Singin’ in the Rain as Zelda Zanders in 1952, and four years later, she played Tuptim in The King and I—a part that would help her land West Side Story.

Now 79, Moreno shows no sign of stopping. She starred with Fran Drescher in TV Land’s “Happily Divorced,” and last month, her solo show Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California—she hopes to continue both endeavors through next year.

To commemorate West Side Story’s 50th anniversary, 20th Century Fox is releasing a special edition of the classic movie this November. Dance Teacher spoke with the fiery Moreno about filming her iconic role.

Dance Teacher: How did you get the part of Anita?

Rita Moreno: After I finished working on The King and I with Jerry Robbins, he told me, “I’m going to do a musical next year called West Side Story. It’s based on Romeo and Juliet, and I think you’d be a marvelous—” are you ready for this—“Maria.” He asked if I’d be willing to come to New York and audition, and of course I said yes.

But when it came time for the audition, I didn’t go. I got cold feet. I got very scared about going to an audition, on an empty stage, staring into a dark auditorium. I had done too many movies, and I was accustomed to having the chance to do multiple takes to improve a scene. Later, when it opened on Broadway, I saw the play and thought, “Oh, boy, I was so wrong.”

Now, flash forward to when they were making the movie, and Jerry said to Robert Wise who was directing with him: “There’s one person I want to see right away and that’s Rita Moreno. But she looks different now, and I think she could do Anita.” So I went to audition, and that’s how I got Anita.

DT: What was filming like?

RM: Most of the dancers were from the Broadway production, and I was scared to death for two reasons. Number one, I hadn’t danced in years. Number two—which should really be number one—I had never done jazz in my life, ever! I was a Spanish dancer. I had to learn from the bottom up how to dance, and especially dance with the arm strength that Jerry’s work required. When I see myself doing “America,” I’m always embarrassed, because I think my arms look very flaccid.

DT: Had you studied ballet before working with Jerome Robbins?

RM: My family and I came from Puerto Rico, and when we got to New York, I began to take flamenco lessons with Paco Cansino. It turned out he was the uncle of Rita Hayworth—whose name was originally Margarita Cansino. He was like Spanish royalty, and I was thrilled to be his student. Paco’s school also had a ballet teacher and a tap teacher, and I took lessons from them, too.

DT: Was Robbins your mentor when working on the dance scenes?

RM: He really was—even though he was probably one of the cruelest people I’ve met, and he gave me a very hard time. I hate to say this because it makes it seem like sadism is OK, but he really brought out more than the best in me. I know that he was very proud of me, and that just knocks my socks off. He knew I wasn’t up to par like the other kids—they were spectacular dancers—and I killed myself to try to meet the standards of jazz and ballet. I’m touched that Jerry thought I was able to carry it off.

DT: What scene was most challenging?

RM: At the very end of “America,” all the women finish on our partners’ shoulders. In rehearsals for the scene, George Chakiris (Bernardo) wore a T-shirt and I had on tights. But when we actually filmed the scene, George was wearing a very slippery black silk jacket, and I was wearing a very slippery purple skirt. Every time I tried to land on his shoulder I would slip off. Not only were the two silks fighting each other, my behind was wider than his shoulder—and his shoulders drooped. We must have done at least 30 takes.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story's "America," circa 1962

DT: Do you have a favorite scene?

RM: “America” is wonderful, especially because it says something important in a sociological way of what it’s like for Latinos in America. But my favorite is the “Mambo at the Gym.” That thing just moves! It’s hip—it’s still hip; that’s what’s so amazing. When he was putting it together, Jerry Robbins visited many local dance halls for inspiration.

DT: Did the cast get along? Was there chemistry between the cast members?

RM: There really was—we laughed a lot. But the Jets came in one day—I think initially it was Russ Tamblyn’s (Riff’s) idea—wearing T-shirts that read, “The Jets.” It’s so common now, but back then, T-shirts with writing was pretty new. And the Sharks, especially George Chakiris, got very upset. So George found and bought a whole bunch of black leather wristbands for his Sharks. And when Jerry saw the wristbands, he absolutely loved them. They’re even in the movie. After that it became Jerry’s mission to keep the Sharks and the Jets apart.

DT: What was it like going to the Oscars—and then winning?

RM: George was my date to the Oscars. And we made up sour-grape speeches because we were sure we were going to lose. My big contender was Judy Garland for her role in Judgment at Nuremberg, and I was absolutely certain she was going to win. But I won! It’s very meaningful when a Hispanic actor wins—and I was only the third in history.

DT: How do you feel when you hear Leonard Bernstein’s music today?

RM: Oh God, the music! My stomach turns and I get chills and goose bumps. I’m so proud and honored to be a part of such an amazing and bold experiment.

DT: An experiment?

RM: When, in any venue, was the classic story of Romeo and Juliet turned upside down into something as extraordinary as West Side Story? It was astounding. The film is forever. DT

 

Photos from top: Moreno in her dressing room in 2011, by Mike LaMonica; Moreno in West Side Story, courtesy of 20th Century FOX

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

In 2019, dance parents are more eager than ever to observe their child's progress, and stay up-to-date with the ins and outs of what's happening in the classroom. That means yearly recitals aren't always enough to keep them satisfied—especially if you have rules against visitors observing class from week to week. The solution? Visitor observation weeks. Trust us, the guardians and loved ones of your students will love you for it!

We caught up with Suzanne Blake Gerety, vice president of Kathy Blake Dance Studios and regular contributor to Dance Teacher's "Ask The Experts" column, to hear her tips on how to have a successful visitor observation week.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Adequate dorsiflexion mobility is needed to find a supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely. Getty Images

Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox