Remembering Chita Rivera

    02 February 2024

    Groundbreaking American performer Chita Rivera died on January 30 in New York. She was 91 years old.

    The famed dancer, singer and actor won many awards and honors in her long career on Broadway and beyond. Her work also broke through ethnic and racial barriers in American entertainment, helping to shape a path for Latin performers.

    Her daughter, Lisa Mordente, announced her mother's death. She said Rivera died after a brief sickness.

    FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2015 file photo, Chita Rivera performs during the Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin' to Do segment of the PBS 2015 Summer TCA Tour held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
    FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2015 file photo, Chita Rivera performs during the "Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin' to Do" segment of the PBS 2015 Summer TCA Tour held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

    Rivera first gained wide notice in 1957 as Anita in the original production of the musical play West Side Story. She was still dancing on New York's Broadway stages a half-century later in 2015's The Visit.

    "I wouldn't know what to do if I wasn't moving or telling a story to you or singing a song," she told the Associated Press at the time. "That's the spirit of my life, and I'm really so lucky to be able to do what I love, even at this time in my life."

    Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was born January 23, 1933, in Washington, D.C. Her Puerto Rican father, Pedro del Rivero, was a musician who played in the United States Navy Band. He died when Chita was seven. Her mother Katherine was of Scottish and Italian ancestry.

    Chita studied dance as a young girl and was accepted to a highly respected school for ballet. She was 17 when she won her first part in a musical.

    "She was a true Broadway legend," playwright Paul Rudnick said on social media service X. "She always delivered and audiences adored her. The moment she stepped onstage, the world became more exciting and glorious."

    Rivera rose from chorus line performer to star. Along the way, she worked with many of Broadway's other greatest playmakers, including Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Fosse, and Harold Prince.

    She won two Tonys, the highest award for live theater in the United States. Her first came in 1984 with the production The Rink. She won again in 1993 for the play Kiss of the Spider Woman. An Associated Press theater critic wrote at the time that Rivera was "more than a musical theater star. She's a force of nature...."

    The second Tony was an especially sweet victory for the star. Just five years earlier, Rivera had been in a serious car accident that crushed her right leg. It could have ended her career. After months of physical therapy to regain her dancing skills, she returned to the stage singing and dancing as energetically as ever.

    She told the AP: "It never entered my mind that I wouldn't dance again. Never. I can't explain to you why. It's hard work getting back but that's what I'm doing."

    When accepting a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018, Rivera said "I wouldn't trade my life in the theater for anything, because theater is life."

    In August 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama honored Rivera with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. At the presentation of the medal, Rivera put her hand over her heart and shook her head in wonderment.

    Rivera was married to dancer Tony Mordente from 1957 until 1966. Their daughter Lisa also became a performer and has appeared on Broadway.

    I'm Caty Weaver.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    original – n. not copied or imitated from something else; the first

    legend – n. a person or thing that inspires legends; someone widely respected and praised for certain skills or successes

    deliver – v. to produce the promised, desired, or expected results

    glorious – adj. extremely good; wonderful

    chorus line n. a group of dancers and singers supporting the featured players in a musical comedy or revue

    therapy – n. medical treatment of impairment, injury, disease, or disorder