Nostalgia

Remembering Annette Charles, a.k.a. Cha Cha, 'The Best Dancer At St. Bernadette's'

As Cha Cha DiGregorio, the bad girl with the best moves, Annette Charles burned up the dance floor with John Travolta in Grease. i i

As Cha Cha DiGregorio, the bad girl with the best moves, Annette Charles burned up the dance floor with John Travolta in Grease. Paramount Pictures/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption Paramount Pictures/Photofest
As Cha Cha DiGregorio, the bad girl with the best moves, Annette Charles burned up the dance floor with John Travolta in Grease.

As Cha Cha DiGregorio, the bad girl with the best moves, Annette Charles burned up the dance floor with John Travolta in Grease.

Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Annette Charles, the actress who played Cha Cha DiGregorio in Grease, died this week in Los Angeles, reportedly after a battle with cancer. She was 63. You might remember Charles as the sultry Catholic school girl who burned up the screen with John Travolta during the Rydell High dance-off, out-shimmying and outshining every other girl in the room. Including Sandy, Olivia Newton-John's blonde ingénue, our clean-cut heroine.

YouTube

Cha Cha dances with Danny Zuko the way it was meant to be... in Spanish.

I remember watching Grease when I was 10 or so. It was the beginning of my long, and often awkward metamorphosis from little girl to pubescent ball of hormones and budding womanhood. As that dance-off unfolded on my living room TV screen, I couldn't take my eyes off Cha Cha: Her screen time was minimal, but, oh my, was she memorable.

She was also, like me, Latina. Or at least, I thought she was. It's only now, as I see her character's full name spelled out in online obituaries, that I realize perhaps she was meant to be Italian. In fact, Charles was a stage name; the actress was born Annette Cardona, of Mexican and Italian ancestry. She certainly looked Latina to me. And at the time I'm recalling — this was the mid-'80s — there weren't too many representations of Latina women on film and TV. Those that did exist were often portrayed as the other, as my women's studies professors might have once put it, pushed to the margins of the narrative.

In the suburban Maryland Catholic parochial school I attended at the time, I was the other, too: a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl with a foreign-sounding name in a sea of light-eyed, light-haired McTavishes and Pecks and Flannerys. I'd just moved back to the U.S. after living in Latin America, and my mother had insisted on enlisting me in a parish school where the entrance exam apparently included Irish ancestry. (I sometimes joked that I was black Irish.) I felt disoriented. Different. Self-conscious about my already-curvy backside (this was way before J.Lo) and my plump lips (also before Rosario Dawson.) I was a dab of cinnamon in a bowlful of vanilla, and I stood out.

So did Cha Cha. Curvy, saucy and dark-haired, she was the mirror opposite of our fair Sandy. Watching her on screen, I knew she was the bad girl, the other — the girl, as Frenchie informs us, "with the worst reputation." But she was also a magnetically confident, voluptuous Latina, and to mix my movie allusions here, there was no putting this baby in the corner. Cha Cha was, for a few minutes at least, the undeniable star of the show.

"They call me Cha Cha. Because I'm the best dancer at St. Bernadette's," Cha Cha tells us when we first meet her.

Yes you were, Cha Cha. Yes you were.

Update: As Annette Cardona, the actress earned a master's degree in social work and taught speech at California State University, Northridge. I found this interview she gave to the school newspaper last December. In it, she recalled her time as a dancer and actress on stage, television and film. Grease director Randal Kleiser told the paper, "She was the perfect actor to play Cha Cha. I couldn't imagine anyone better." I couldn't agree more.

Correction Aug. 7, 2011

An earlier version of this post misstated Charles's date of death.

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