One of the most famous costumes in Grease (1978) comes from Cha-Cha DiGregorio, a minor, but totally vital character, in her ‘hot mama’ ruffled Flamenco-style dress at the dance-off.
So called because she is “the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s”, Cha-Cha brings a spicy ‘Latina’ flavour to proceedings. Ironically the actress Annette Cardona, of Mexican-Sicilian descent, was advised by her agent to change her name to Annette Charles, the former being considered “too ethnic”.
Other than her dress, Cha-Cha has two further costumes. Her first is barely seen by the audience as she pulls up with her arm protectively around Leo, leader of ‘T-Bird’ rivals ‘The Scorpions’, as he mocks Kenickie and Rizzo. However, as we see the differences between the two men, the two women also vary. Cha-Cha wears a tight lemon yellow, possibly cashmere short-sleeved top with Peter Pan collar edged in white.
With her big, long, exotic red hair, impeccable make-up, sculpted face and laughing scorn, she puts bewildered Rizzo in the shade; the latter with chubby little cheeks, sweaty curls, just sucked off the face make-up and thrown-on cardigan. Leo says he’d give “75 cents for the car, including your chick”, as opposed to the more upmarket Cha-Cha. She seems older and sophisticated with the worldly-wise attitude that the Rydell Girls can only wish they had. Although at 29 the actress was by no means the eldest pupil!
Rivalry time again at the dance-off where by some twist of fate Kenickie ends up taking Cha-Cha. Poor Rizzo does a double-take; she tries her best to go for the ‘españa’ look in red and black, possibly guessing her competition, but it’s Cha-Cha whose style of dress suits her personality perfectly – fiery and feisty.
Her gorgeous gown begins as a black halterneck covered in individual black sequins, steel blue feathers and tiny black spangles among the ruffles at her ample cleavage. The rest, in sparkling black with floral design in blue, beige and white, reminds one of a Mexican ‘salon de baile’. Nipped in at the waist, zipped up the side to display her beautiful figure, flaring out to eye-catching effect, it is shown to its full potential as she dances ‘Born to Hand Jive’ with Danny, where the chemistry is as hot as a jalopeno. We see the built-in steel blue net petticoat underneath, often used in the 1950s to buoy full skirts, happily thrown in the air to compliment her exotic dance moves and proudly flaunt those roomy black knickers.
Accompanying this vixen’s sexpot frock she sports Grecian silver t-bar high sandals; blue, lilac and yellow flower in her swept-to-one side hair (removed for main dance number – she wants no restrictions and just lets herself go), vampish red nails to match lips and, significantly, no bag. Cha-Cha is the type of girl who you can’t imagine ever feels the need to check/improve on her appearance; she has a confidence (and “reputation”) way above the Pink Ladies’.
With its bare back this dress would have been deemed racy for the 1950s, but Cha-Cha is a chica who would embrace this. However, for all her trying to act cool and nonchalant at the scene’s beginning, she is full of teenage excitement at winning the trophy. Plus throughout she is obviously desperate to be on TV. Her dress sparkles, not to mention her actions, suggesting the extent to which she craves attention, and this may be her sole reason for coming to the dance-off.
The ball’s two sirens, Cha-Cha and Rizzo, are united as they try to break up the fight that ensues between Kenickie and Leo. But unlike Rizzo, who leaves distraught and probably out of her league, Cha-Cha quickly moves on, finding other ‘prey’ with whom to dance. She is flighty and fun-loving, yet sexy too – maybe even inspiring Sandy to change her image at the end of the film, as she notices how captivating Cha-Cha is to Danny.
Cha-Cha’s final scene is at Thunder Road. Many marvel at how fantastic she looks in her figure-hugging lemon-yellow pedal pushers, thin silver high heels, black cinch, grey scoop-necked fitted sweater and fitted neck-scarf matching her pants. But for the poor actress, she could barely get into the snug trousers; she almost didn’t get to the studio. Cardona was on day release from hospital in agony (see how she leans on cars ‘seductively’? Not in the script!), having suffered a tubular pregnancy that evening.
For Cha-Cha every detail matters, from the delicate weaving around the neck of her t-shirt to the rolled-up sleeves – a sign that she wants to be seen as ‘one of the boys’, this being a typically 1950s teenage male look along with her casual pants. The Pink Ladies pose in their matching jackets, but as Cha-Cha signals the race’s commencement, her scarf being the starting ‘flag’, she is a cut above them with her enviable figure and poise. The girls try and retaliate through bitchiness, Marty saying she will give Leo “a lock of hair from her chest”, but this of course is jealousy.
Annette Cardona, now a professor in speech at California State University, Northridge, shines as bright today as thirty years ago. She can now be infinitely proud of looking every inch the mysterious, sizzling, Amazonian woman that her agent was so anxious of her being.
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.