SAB Trailblazer – Chita Rivera

Today we’re excited to celebrate SAB trailblazer and sensational star of the stage and screen – Chita Rivera. Ms. Rivera trained at SAB from the age of 14, studying with many of the School’s early faculty members, including Muriel Stuart, Anatole Oboukhoff and Felia Doubrovska before landing her first theater role in the touring company of Call Me Madam, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, in 1952.

Chita Rivera in West Side Story. Photo by Martha Swope ©New York Public Library

Born in 1933, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero started dancing at a young age, when her mother saw the need to channel her daughter’s boundless energy. A native of Washington, D.C., Ms. Rivera began her ballet training at the Jones-Haywood Dance School under the direction of the school’s founders Doris W. Jones and Claire H. Haywood. In 1949 Ms. Rivera went to New York City alongside classmate Louis Johnson to audition for Mr. Balanchine. Both were accepted and invited to train at SAB on scholarship.

After completing her training at the School, Ms. Rivera found her calling not as a ballerina, but a Broadway dancer. After the run of Call Me Madam, she landed roles in the Broadway productions of Guys and Dolls, Can Can and Seventh Heaven, among others, before originating a role that would catapult her to theater stardom – Anita in the original production of West Side Story.

Chita Rivera in West Side Story Photo by Leo Kharibian

Choreographed and directed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story served as a perfect display of Ms. Rivera’s dance abilities as well as her incredible talent and depth as a performer. From there, she went on to originate some of the most iconic roles in American musical theater, including Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and Spider Woman / Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Watch as Ms. Rivera shares her memories of her ballet beginnings and how her SAB training paved the way to her incredible career as a performer.

In 1994, SAB honored Ms. Rivera with a Lifetime Achievement Award at our Backstage With SAB Awards Dinner. In her acceptance speech, Ms. Rivera shared how the School had given her the foundation to succeed in dance and life…

“The years I was at SAB were the foundation for everything I did, not just dance. I truly believe because of the great training, care, and love I received there, I am still dancing. The excellence of Mr. Oboukhoff, Muriel Stuart, Mme. Doubrovska, Miss Reiman gave me my career…If my teachers were here now, I would thank them for their profound influence.”
—Chita Rivera

In 2005, Ms Rivera starred in Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, a musical revue based on her life with a book by Terrence McNally, original songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and additional songs from various other composers’ catalogs. It earned Rivera her ninth Tony Award nomination.

Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

In a career spanning over seven decades, Ms. Rivera has won three Tony Awards – including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 2018 – and two Drama Desk Awards. In 2002 she was celebrated as a Kennedy Center Honoree and in 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her list of performing credits is nothing short of incredible and her contributions to dance and theater are simply beyond measure. Ms. Rivera’s dynamic performance style, humor, grace and longevity continue to inspire generations of performers.