By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Today marks what would have been the 95th birthday of Rita Hayworth, the legendary screen goddess best known today for her seductive portrayal of Gilda in the 1946 film of the same name. Beautiful, long-legged, and mysterious, she was Columbia’s biggest star of the 1940’s and became a pin-up girl during the war years with a popularity rivaling that of Betty Grable. Her popularity as a sex symbol became so overwhelming that many lost sight of exactly who she was, and from whence she had come. As with the vast majority of sex symbols, she became objectified, and her career prior to her 1946 portrayal of Gilda was almost completely forgotten and her background washed away. The sex symbol image bothered her. “I’ve never really thought of myself as a sex symbol,” Hayworth once said, “more as a comedienne who could dance.” Today, on her birthday, I would like to go back to Rita Hayworth’s origins and focus on what was important to her in her life and career–dance.
Rita Hayworth’s background was almost exclusively in dance. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino into a well-known Spanish dancing family (her father was Spanish Gypsy flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, and her mother was an American former Ziegfeld girl of Irish and English descent), she began dancing under the tutelage of her father when she was 4 years old. Eduardo soon realized that his daughter had an exceptional talent, and he eventually took her south from their home in Chula Vista, CA to the Mexican city of Tijuana where they performed as a dancing duo. Shy, quiet and self-conscious offstage, Margarita came alive when she danced and audience members often noticed the dichotomy between the fiery creature dancing onstage and the silent girl they witnessed offstage. The experience dancing with her father in Tijuana certainly honed Margarita’s dancing abilities, and it was there that she learned the ins and outs of show business, something that would help her when she soon went to Hollywood.
Rita’s Hollywood career began in a small role in a movie entitled Under the Pampas Moon, and from there her roles increased in frequency if not in quality, until Hollywood finally noticed her in the late 1930s. After some Hollywood grooming which included painful electrolysis to raise her “ethnic” hairline, she was paired with dancing great Fred Astaire with whom she starred in 2 movies, You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier.
In You Were Never Lovelier, Rita and Fred danced what I consider to be one of the most phenomenal and challenging technical routines in movie history. The “Shorty George” number from this film truly demonstrates how skilled Rita was as a dancer, and how easy it was to watch her, still a relative novice at this point, in lieu of Fred Astaire. All eyes draw toward her, and she is the star of this complex routine. In spite of his legendary partnership with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire always called Rita his favorite dancing partner. He recalled how gifted and quick she was in learning the most advanced routines–often learning the steps in the morning, mulling over them during lunch, and after lunch performing the dance without a single mistake.
Rita also seemed to have a propensity to use dance when life became difficult for her. She was always an intensely insecure person, and this caused problems in her relationships. Orson Welles recalled that, when they married in 1943, he would often set her up with a record of Spanish music in a private room, and just let her dance out her anxiety. Her experiences with her father in Tijuana seemed to be the catalyst for both her affinity for dance and her anxiety. According to Barbara Leaming in her biography If This Was Happiness, the situation brought out the worst in Eduardo in regard to his relationship with his talented pre-teen daughter. Leaming conducted interviews with Orson Welles in which he revealed years of physical and sexual abuse Rita endured at the hands of her father. As can be expected from these early traumas, Rita’s relationship with her father was severely damaged and it is almost certain that her many destructive relationships with men were results of these cruel experiences. Yet this seemed to only solidify her tendency to use dance as an outlet and means of expression during hard times, one upon which she relied for her whole life.
At the end of her life, when Rita was unable to communicate due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease, her daughter Yasmin often put music on and watched as Rita’s feet began to move rhythmically, as if she were remembering her life as a dancer. Her ability to dance was one of the last things to go–a glimmer of solace in the terrible world of Alzheimer’s Disease.