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He Showed Me How to Mambo, I Showed Him Musicals

Date: Oct 19, 2020

How a shared love of theatre and dance led to romance


We're all missing the theatre right now, but it's not just the shows we long for. We're missing the inimitable experience of sharing live in-person entertainment with our loved ones. Seeing shows—whether with a partner, friend or family member—deepens our kinship and brings us closer. As a joyful reminder of how the performing arts connect us, TDF Stages presents Theatre Lovers, a series of essays written by readers like you about how theatre has transformed their relationships. This heartwarming piece was written by Jan Mayrick, a longtime TDF member and lifelong theatre lover. We are honored to share this touching and intensely personal remembrance. If you'd like to submit your story for consideration, please email TDF Stages.

Last month, I was watching MCC Theater's Miscast20 gala and having an enjoyable time, then Phillipa Soo stared singing "Some Enchanted Evening." Suddenly and unexpectedly, wonderful memories of how I met my husband came flooding back.

It was at a dance weekend at a hotel in the Catskills in New York State. He was a fabulous Latin dancer and I was a novice who had recently started taking mambo lessons. I had just broken up with a guy who'd been my partner in a Latin hustle class and I thought about canceling. But since I already had a reservation, I decided to go with a female friend. Friday night after dinner, I went into the Latin room. Hot-tempo mambos were playing and bodies were moving rhythmically to the beat. Just like the lyrics to "Some Enchanted Evening," I looked across a crowded room and saw a stranger—a tall, thin man moving in an unfamiliar way. I felt like Maria in West Side Story seeing Tony for the first time at the dance. Everything else fell away and all I wanted was to dance with this man.

But I was shy and not confident in my elementary mambo skills, so I merely stood at the edge of the dance floor and watched. When the song ended, he came over to me and said that I looked sad. I told him I wasn't sad, just disappointed that no one was dancing with me. He introduced himself as "cha-cha Don," took my hand and led me to the dance floor. I was nervous that I would step on his feet or not stay on the two-beat, but it was easy to follow him. That was the beginning of a beautiful weekend and almost 37 years of marriage.


The first Broadway show I saw was the original production of West Side Story when I was 12. That launched my love affair with theatre, especially Broadway musicals. A few years into our relationship, Don revealed that he had attended an open call for West Side Story at the Winter Garden Theatre. Because he had been born with severe hearing loss, he wore a hearing aid which, in the 1950s, hung on a cord around the neck. The director told Don he liked his style but asked if he could remove the hearing aid. Of course, that wasn't possible—without it he couldn't hear the music! So Don's Broadway career ended before it even began.

But he never stopped performing. He was an excellent Latin and ballroom dancer, and what he lacked in formal training he made up for with talent and charisma. He was the type of dancer people would watch. And he certainly wasn't shy! I would say he was a born exhibitionist. Don continued to dance in shows at Florida venues and in the Catskills.

He had learned how to dance from his mother. Because of his hearing loss, she taught him to rhumba by placing his hand on the radio and showing him how to move his hips to the music. He said he got his sense of rhythm from her; his father had two left feet and could only do the Charleston. But, overall, he came from a musical family. His uncle was Joe Young who wrote the lyrics to more than 300 songs, including big hits such as "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" and "I'm Sitting on Top of the World."


When Don and I danced, he had his shtick. For instance, in the middle of a mambo he would start doing Charlie Chaplin moves or pretend he was an old man leaning on a cane. Since he had gone bald at a young age, he always wore a hat and would use it as a prop. Most of them were purchased by me at Daffy's.

While Don was the one who introduced me to the world of mambo dancing, I introduced him to the magic of theatregoing. Although his hearing loss did not hamper his ability to dance, he was reluctant to attend shows. I started by signing him up for TDF Accessibility Programs so that we would be guaranteed seats close to the stage. Mostly, we attended musicals or dance performances that didn't require him to hear lots of dialogue. We went to see Broadway musicals, classical ballet, modern dance and New York Philharmonic concerts.

Gradually, Don began to attend straight plays with me, especially comedies such as The Play That Goes Wrong and One Man, Two Guvnors. If a show was full of physical humor, he didn't worry so much about missing some of the dialogue. Often, he would laugh until tears formed in his eyes. He was a big fan of Bill Irwin—we saw Old Hats twice.

But musicals were Don's favorite. He stood up and shouted, "Bravo!", applauding like crazy at the end of Dear Evan Hansen as tears streamed down his face. He was extremely moved by that show and didn't utter a word until we had exited the theatre and walked a few blocks outside. He loved Fiddler on the Roof. We saw two revivals of that, one with Harvey Fierstein, who had the acting chops for Tevye if not the singing voice. He also adored Come From Away, The Lion King, Mamma Mia and On the Twentieth Century. After The Phantom of the Opera, he went around singing, "slowly, gently...." all the time, though believe me, he did not have a good singing voice!

His biggest thrill was meeting Chita Rivera in person—three times. The first time was when she was in An Evening of Latin Rhythms, a 2006 fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. Eight of us got TDF tickets to the show. Afterward, the band led by Eddie Palmieri played for a few minutes, and we all got up to dance. Chita came out with some friends and sat in the front near the dance floor. When she saw Don dance, she ran up to him, took his face in both her hands, kissed him and said, "You must be an old Palladium dancer! You are fabulous!" Needless to say, he was on cloud nine. Chita Rivera complimenting your dancing is the ultimate praise! She signed the program with a personal message. It's framed in the hallway of our apartment.

The second time they met was after the Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He went to the stage door and gave his name, hoping Chita would remember him. I happened to be seeing another show that day, so when I called his mobile phone afterward to meet up, he told me not to rush—he was with Chita in her dressing room! The third time was after we saw The Visit. Again, Don gave his name and this time she invited us both up. Chita is a very warm, personable lady.


In May 2018, my loving husband Don passed away at age 85 of pancreatic cancer, one year after his diagnosis. I don't know how he would feel now with this quarantine in place, viewing theatre only on TV and online. At home he could avail himself of closed captioning, which would make it easier for him, but I don't think he would find it as exciting as attending a live performance. Whenever I see a musical or a play that I know he would appreciate, I get sentimental. That's how I felt when Phillipa Soo sang, "Some enchanted evening, when you find your true love." Wherever Don is, I hope there's a ballroom, a great Latin band and a theatre.

Have a great tale for our Theatre Lovers series? Email your story to TDF Stages.


Jan Mayrick was a high school teacher of shorthand and typing for 20 years, and then a special education guidance counselor in elementary school until her 2002 retirement. She has been a TDF member since the beginning of her teaching career. She loves traveling and lived in Israel from 1971 to 1973. She and her late husband traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe.

Top image: the author and her late husband.