Dancing Queen: Rita Moreno, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Woman of the Year, on leaping through showbiz barriers and the secret to career longevity

When her grandfather blasted the music on his record player, little Rita Moreno danced through the doorway to greet him.“Dancing to songs for Grandpa in Puerto Rico is where it all started,” Moreno says. “He used to love to see me dance. Me! This little itty-bitty girl! I was no more than 5 years old. And pardon me when I say, I could really shake my booty!”

“I was practically born dancing,” she says on a recent weekday morning. “It’s not just my art; it’s in my DNA.”

Nevada Ballet Theatre didn’t need to do a DNA test to figure that one out. Moreno will be honored as Woman of the Year at its Black & White Ball on Jan. 26 at Aria. NBT has honored a wide array of female icons at the ball over the years, including Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Marie Osmond and Olivia Newton-John.

Those are some big names, but Moreno belongs to an even more exclusive club: She is one of only 15 people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony — the coveted EGOT distinction.

“It’s such a lovely honor and I’m so excited to come to Vegas, which is such a fun city,” Moreno says of the NBT nod. “Plus, I’m hoping to see some wonderful dancing.”

Ask Moreno what emotions dance stirs in her and she doesn’t hesitate: “Dancing is joy.”

“There is something so extraordinarily unique about expressing happiness and goodwill with your body. You don’t have to worry about words or sounding overly dramatic. In dance, you can be as dramatic as you wish,” Moreno says from her home in Los Angeles. “It’s flying. It’s twisting yourself into shapes you never dreamed were possible. It’s allowing yourself to express the beauty of music.

“In the tropics, I believe you are born with music in you. Your life is accompanied by that music. It’s the most natural thing in the world, plus I did like the attention I got from dancing. That part was pretty fabulous,” she says with a laugh.

Moreno’s career has spanned more than 70 years and includes film classics such as “The King and I” and “West Side Story,” along with a stint on the children’s TV series “The Electric Company.” More recent roles include a turn on HBO’s “Oz” and on the current Netflix reboot of “One Day at a Time,” in which she plays a grandmother.

The multitalented Moreno, who has broken barriers throughout her entertainment career, also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, the nation’s highest civilian award.

But she wasn’t always appreciated for her many skills. Moreno came of age at a time when girls born in Puerto Rico from working-class families — her mother was a seamstress and her father was a farmer — didn’t become acting and dancing sensations. Her mother was only 17 when she gave birth to Rosita Dolores Alverío, who later took her stepfather’s surname, Moreno. Her mother moved to New York City with Rita in 1936, where she began taking dance lessons from Spanish dancer Paco Cansino.

Moreno was acting by age 11, doing Spanish-language versions of American films via voice work. By 13, she was
on Broadway in “Skydrift,” which caught the attention
of Hollywood agents.

Did she ever hear that young Puerto Rican girls don’t make it in Hollywood? “I lived with that much of my life — and when I went to Hollywood, it got even worse. But I wouldn’t quit,” she says.

Being the first Latina to win an Oscar was groundbreaking. “A lot of Latino actors and actresses still tell me to this day that they saw ‘West Side Story’ and knew they could make it in show business. Jennifer Lopez had said it. That makes me proud, as did winning that Oscar, which was so enormous and immense,” Moreno says. “It was a shock, and it took me a long time to understand what it meant. What made me the proudest was that I earned it.”

As for that Oscar night, “I’ve been told many times that Spanish Harlem went crazy in New York and the entire island
of Puerto Rico went nuts.”

Why does she think people still identify with the headstrong Anita, the character she played in “West Side Story”? “She’s such a huge spirit and so big. She’s so deep, and she’s so brave,” Moreno says. “That’s why people still tell me they
watch the movie again and again. It’s astonishing how many young women over the years have told me that Anita gives them heart and hope.”

After her Oscar win, Moreno refused to take stereotypical Hispanic maid and gang roles and, as a result, didn’t work for seven years. “It was all I could do to pay the rent,” she says. “I said ‘no’ and didn’t work for a long time, which broke my heart. I got offered so little anyway, and what I was offered was the same kind of gang-related thing.”

Four decades later, Moreno believes there’s room for improvement. “I still think we have a ways to go,” she says. “Hispanics are still underrated in Hollywood.”

Currently, Moreno stars on the popular Netflix revamp of “One Day at a Time,” which is about three generations of a Cuban-American family living in the same house. It’s produced and written by the legendary Norman Lear, who will be the honorary chair at the NBT ball. “To work with this genius of a man who is ever so functional at 97 is outstanding. We’re
two of a kind on the set because we come from another era,” says Moreno, who is 86.

Though change has been slow to come for minorities, she’s hopeful about the future.

“I just remind myself that life can be terrible and sad, but also wonderful,” she says. “My life advice to anyone is to look for the good moments. Better yet, make your own good moments.”

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