Cyd Charisse, the U.S. dancer and actress who was paired with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in films such as The Band Wagon and Singin' in the Rain, has died. She was 86.

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In this 1966 file photo, Cyd Charisse is pictured in character for her role in Meet Me in Las Vegas. The long-legged Texas beauty, who danced with the Ballet Russe as a teenager and starred in MGM musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, died Tuesday. ((Associated Press))

Charisse died early Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after suffering an apparent heart attack on Monday.

Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Tex., on March 8, 1921. Cyd was her family nickname. She married Nico Charisse, her dance instructor, in 1939.

She trained as a ballet dancer and joined the Ballet Russe at 13, dancing under the name Siderova.

The company broke up when the Second World War began and she returned to Los Angeles, where the long-legged beauty was offered a dancing role in Something to Shout About.

"I had just done that number with [star David Lichine] as a favour to him," she said in her 1976 autobiography. "Honestly, the idea of working movies had never once entered my head. I was a dancer, not an actress. I had no delusions about myself. I couldn't act — I had never acted. So how could I be a movie star?"

In 1945, she was hired to dance in an uncredited role with Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies and that earned her a seven-year contract with MGM.

Astaire described Charisse in his 1959 memoir, Steps in Time, as "beautiful dynamite."

"Ballet is a closed world and very rigid; MGM was a fairyland," Charisse said. "You'd walk down the lot, seeing all these fabulous movies being made with the greatest talent in the world sitting there. It was a dream to walk through that lot."

She appeared in a number of musicals over the next few years, including Fiesta, The Singing Bandit and East Side, West Side. Her dancing was always at the centre of the action — although she was playing in musicals, her singing was always dubbed.

Gene Kelly chose Charisse to partner him in the celebrated Broadway Melody ballet finale in Singin' in the Rain, as star Debbie Reynolds was not a dancer. The role made Charisse a household name.

She starred with Kelly again in Brigadoon in 1954 and It's Always Fair Weather in 1956 and danced opposite Astaire in 1957's Silk Stockings, a remake of Ninotchka, and the Mickey Spillane satire The Band Wagon.

As the 1960s dawned, Hollywood stopped making musicals and Charisse's film career faded.

Instead, she made appearances on television in shows such as Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote and, more recently, Frasier.

She also performed in a nightclub revue with her second husband, singer Tony Martin, whom she married in 1948 after the breakup of her first marriage.

With Martin, she wrote a 1976 autobiography, The Two of Us, in which she compared dancing with Kelly and Astaire.

"To sum it up, I'd say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen," she wrote. "But it's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious."

She was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Humanities, one of the U.S.'s greatest honours in the arts, in 2006.

She is survived by her husband and two sons.

With files from the Associated Press