Accidental Style Icon: Cha-Cha DiGregorio's Black Underwear
Move over, permed Sandy—in 'Grease,' the best dancer at St. Bernadette's remains the most iconic.
"With the worst reputation."
Age is a state of mind is a mantra most often reserved for Frank Sinatra serenades and those who lie about their age after the first AARP brochure is slipped, unsolicited, into their mailbox. For me, the notion struck no later than Freud’s latency period, sometime around ten, when I first watched Grease. I calculated—a surrealist interpretation of elementary algebra—that by the ripe-enough age of eighteen, I would radiate with Sandy’s “sex appeal” and Rizzo’s fuck-you patina. In 1978, when Grease was released, Olivia Newton-John was, in reality, a sophomoric thirty, a bunny hop from Stockard Channing’s thirty four.
Upon my fifth grade graduation, it was decided our class would perform “We Go Together” for the entire school, shepherded by our drama teacher who, before our first rehearsal, had humble-bragged that she had been an extra in the iconic film. Like pageant queens to a stage mom, our mouths opened wide in song while she choreographed our flailing and regurgitated morsels of her thirty-to-forty-five-second interval of fame. On the last day of school—and sans the pleather leggings I begged my mother to buy for my costume—I slid into checkered Vans and skipped onto the school's amphitheater, a trust fall into our teacher’s trembling jazz hands and highfalutin sideline pantomimes to smile and project.
It wasn’t until I rewatched Grease at age twenty-six—reliving salad days via streaming amidst the quarantine—that I recognized my teacher, Mz. Debbie, in a teal taffeta gown just as she took a howling nosedive into her rock & roll partner and wiped out on the lacquered basketball court at the Rydell High Dance-Off. Stepping over her, the chorus of extras twirled on, arms and legs and petticoats hurled across the dance floor. With each bobby-sock flip came a flash of bashful mid-century lingerie; Pink Ladies, cheerleaders, and saddle-shoed plebes alike clashing pelvises to steal first place for Most Wanton Treatment of the Jitterbug. But just as Danny and Sandy entered the spotlight, a T-Bird crony swooped in and dragged Sandy away from her summer-lover, to reveal the one and only Cha-Cha DiGregorio.
After an hour of Danny this and Kenickie that, “They call me Cha-Cha, ’cause I’m the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s” deserves its own monument, mortgage, and mausoleum at the Bechdel Test Memorial Chapel. Cha-Cha’s cherry-red lipstick winks, and nods, at Zuko Baby’s hello-goodbye footwork. Her turquoise tulle bustier scares Sandy’s organza shawl all the way back to a cul-de-sac in Sydney. But as she sways and swaggers, pinning her date to the floor with the spike of her silver stiletto, Cha-Cha’s black underwear takes center stage; with every orgiastic kick, a panorama of outfit-coordinated panties. The briefs that brought her legs as a date. The scanties that say, You could race Grease Lightnin' on my bikini line at 90 miles per hour and it wouldn’t even hurt, ripping her scarf from her neck and raising it to the heavens as the dueling engines roar.
No frills, no floral patterns, no embroidered days of the week. You know, like the pair your best friend’s mother fishes out of the back of her closet and claims she got a compliment on in the Rubber Room at Studio 54 (but will let you borrow to fashion a theme party costume). Does she know Cha-Cha? She was Cha-Cha. Those black high-cut briefs screamed to me, “Parochial school is a frame of mind!” drowning out the Fruit of every Loom and crinkling Hanes five-pack; a prophecy from “the fast crowd” to divine the coming of the first American Apparel nylon bodysuit. If good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere, that underwear was the skeleton key to looking eighteen at thirty and proving 1978 was the 1958 everyone deserved.
Prancing around my apartment as I watched, belting spotty lyrics from a takeout-laden kitchen, grooving up and down the narrow hallway, leaping onto my sofa as if a stage at a club, I felt a pang of yearning for the land before (and after) quaran-time. Stunted in the growth spurt between my early and later twenties I wondered, when the world presses “play” again, will I find myself in my thirties with the pent up angst of a teenager? Will I gel my hair and swagger around the home office in a beat-up leather jacket, avoiding the responsibilities that come with the varsity sport coat put to rest in the back of the closet last year? I collapse onto the sofa and resolve to worry about that tomorrow.
Imagining my high school-era self ogling the seniors—a comb-clad frosh at the entryway vanity mirrors—I think of goody two-shoes Patty Simcox and her powder-blue dress with matching powder-blue bloomers. How neither KZAZ’s zoom lens nor Kenickie’s lecherous prank could deliver her a place in the sun. Like her chip-on-the-shoulder chipper and toilet papier-mâchéd panache, Patty’s undergarments screamed overachiever. Cha-Cha, however, sent Sandy, Rizzo, and Patty dashing offstage to the drum roll of Johnny Casino and the Gambler’s rendition of “Born to Handjive,” just in time to clasp Danny’s Pepto-Bismol-cuffed hand in victory, before accepting the golden trophy on behalf of her nethers.