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Dolores and Chita
My full name is Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. My father was a Puerto Rican clarinetist and sax player; my Scottish-Irish mother was a government clerk. I was raised Catholic, and I’ve often said I’ve had two angels — Chita and Dolores — one on each shoulder. Chita got along with everybody. She was the performer, the people pleaser. Not Dolores. She’d tell it like it was, like Anita. She’d say, “No, this is the way it is,” or “No, we’re not gonna do this.” My daughter, Lisa, says that’s when “Mom goes Puerto Rican.”
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A sad-happy childhood
Writing the book took me back to the beginning. My childhood was very secure. I was one of five, and we played and fought and laughed and ate and were part of a mixed-race neighborhood on Flagler Place in Washington, D.C. But in 1940 when I was 7, Daddy became seriously ill. We weren’t allowed in the hospital in those days because we were children. Mother used to take us, and we’d stand outside and see him at his window. And then he passed away. It was rough for my mother with five kids, but somehow she kept us all on a normal keel.
While I knew about my father’s Puerto Rican heritage, I uncovered a secret on my mother’s side while researching my family history for the memoir: My maternal grandparents were mulatto, mixed-race descendants of the once enslaved. I wished I’d known earlier — it might have deepened my connection with my Black friends and colleagues, especially my onetime love Sammy Davis Jr.
The energizer Chita
I had tons of energy and two brothers to play with. We used to hang out with the neighborhood kids and ride bicycles, skate and sneak into movie theaters. There was a back alley, fences and a pear tree that I used to climb. I was very athletic and very energetic. Indoors, jumping from one sofa to another, I was destroying the furniture. Mother had to save her tables and chair, and knew I had to be channeled. She enrolled me in a local ballet school, and then at 16, I auditioned for George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. And this tall, blond, gorgeous dancer came running from the audition room screaming, “I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!” If she couldn’t, how could I? I was short, brown and nervous as hell, but my teacher told me, “Just stay in your own lane and look straight ahead.” And I got in. One step, one plié, led to another — and, ultimately, Broadway.
I was born at a very good time — the ’40s and ’50s were the golden age of Broadway musicals. It began for me in 1957, when I got cast as Anita, the Puerto Rican girl who sings “America” in West Side Story. It was a job but became something so much bigger, in part because that musical was ripped from the headlines. Somebody had just been killed in a playground down the street — the article was pinned to a note board as we entered the theater. This is your life, I thought. Then came big roles in Bye Bye Birdie, Bob Fosse’s Chicago and other musicals. Still, I didn’t win my first Tony until I starred in The Rink with Liza Minnelli in 1984. I’m still paying for all that jazz now. [Laughs, tapping her overworked knees.]
I still prefer being called a dancer. I come from the chorus and the family that comes with being a part of the show. In rehearsal, you laid out your heart and soul from 10 to 6 daily. Dancers are very open people. What you see is what we are. We’re told what to do and we do it. And that’s the way it was with singing and acting, too, but I wouldn’t change being a dancer for anything in the world.
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