In reality, Rivera had already been taking dance classes with her sisters and was awarded a scholarship to George Balanchine's prestigious School of American Ballet in Manhattan at 14. "I don't know if Daddy would have let me go," she says. "He was very Latin and the family was very tight." She calls the three years at SAB the foundation for all the dancing she's done since.
An audition for master choreographer Jerome Robbins landed her a role as a principal dancer in the 1952 tour of Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman. Rivera was off and running — and kicking, jumping and back-flipping.
She became a bona fide star as Anita, an explosion of song, dance and emotion, in 1957's West Side Story. In a career of 50 years and counting, her costars have ranged from Antonio Banderas (Nine) and dear friend, the late Gwen Verdon (Chicago), to Liza Minnelli, who says Rivera was her inspiration for getting into theater. Rivera won a Tony Award for her spin opposite Minnelli in The Rink.
After a 1986 car accident left her with 16 screws in her crushed right leg, she created a cabaret act with less footwork. Seven years later she won a Tony for her role as seductive Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
"Chita's a star," says award-winning composer John Kander who, with partner Fred Ebb, wrote the music for Chicago and The Rink, among others. "But she came from that world where you take lots of classes and you work very hard to hone your talent. She sets the behavior and the work standard really high on a show."
Rivera's dedication to work belies an awareness of those less fortunate. She's active on the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS board. "She's helped so many people," says friend and choreographer Dee Dee Wood. When a dancer they knew was ill stopped answering his phone, "Chita went to his house, took him to the hospital and helped him get well," she says. "If Chita's a friend, she's a friend."
Her footwork may not be as fancy as it once was, but Rivera maintains the soaring optimism and spirit befitting a legend: "You really never know what the next day brings you. I have a very young outlook. I don't think you know how much you can do until you try."
You may also like: Chita Rivera's homemade corn pudding recipe.