How I Danced to La Bamba On Stage Every Night (when I can’t dance)

Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s.  Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every week.

If you know anything about me and my blog, you know that I love 1950’s music. It all started when I was around 12 and rented “La Bamba” from Blockbuster. Years later, I grew to love the Rock N Roll adaptation of the popular Mexican Folk song even more when I began researching 1950’s hits and the incredible artists behind them.

But there’s a story in-between that I’ve been meaning to tell. This is sort of my “intermediate ‘La Bamba’ story”, if you will.

It was several years ago now, that I was cast as the lead in my first play since Junior High. The play was put on by the highly acclaimed Theater Arts department at the college in my community. It was a comedy called Rumors by Neil Simon.

Neil Simon, as you may or may not know, is hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read a piece of his work without laughing out loud. He was a gem. Every scene in each of his plays is filled with great jokes, quirky characters and a whole lotta chaos.

I took Theater Arts to challenge myself. I am not a performer by any means. I like acting, love singing but I hate being in front of people. Oh, and I can’t dance. AT ALL. Being cast in Rumors meant I had to put aside my intense stage fright and work on my inability to remember lines. I knew I didn’t have to accept the role of Chris Gorman, but I wanted it. Badly! Not only because it was a big part, but because it was a big part in a really funny show- a show that I liked and believed in.

Now what does dancing to “La Bamba” have to do with being in a Neil Simon play? That’s just it. Mr. Simon’s humor could take you anywhere. And in ACT II, I found that it required me to dance (albeit badly) to the song “La Bamba” in front of a nightly audience.

If you don’t know the story of Rumors, I won’t tell it. But you do need to know that in ACT II, Chris and her husband Ken, along with a few other dinner guests, pretend to be dancing up a storm in an attempt to cover up something suspicious that’s going on in that house. The police are just arriving, and the Gormans along with the other guests have to act like they’re busy -and fast- so they turn the radio up loud and begin to dance feverishly. “La Bamba” just happens to be the song that’s on the radio, because that’s what makes it all the more amusing. The Gormans and their friends are all upper-class snobs and would probably have never made that their music selection of choice, but they were desperate.

The fact that I can’t dance actually worked in my favor! The scene was ridiculously chaotic and funny. Me and the boy who played my husband were in evening wear. He in a tux and I in an evening gown. If I was nervous about dancing, then that was fine too, because Chris and Ken Gorman were nothing if not nervous in the scene.

What I remember most is how much fun it was to just dance and not care that I wasn’t good! I remember it was one of my favorite parts of the whole show. However, the funniest thing that happened to me personally was not on stage, but in the dressing room.

One evening during tech rehearsal, the stage manager came in to tell us that the recording of “La Bamba” was ready and we could finally start dancing to it during rehearsals. I don’t know what came over me, but suddenly I blurted out the question: “Is it the original 1958 recording by Ritchie Valens?”

The whole room stopped and looked at me. The stage manager paused, with kind of a confused look and said “Uh… I… don’t know…”

The rest of the cast just looked at me like “Huh?” The weird thing is I didn’t feel stupid at all. I felt proud that I knew who made “La Bamba” so famous and what year it was from. And for a fleeting second, I recalled my childhood love for the 1950’s and the movie I’d seen years before… But then I put that aside again, as I rushed out for rehearsal.

Of course, the version we danced to in the play was NOT Ritchie Valens’ recording. That would have cost way too much in royalties. It was possibly the Los Lobos version, but I’m still not sure.

That’s the story except to add that it was during the time I was in Rumors that I learned the words to “La Bamba”. Hearing it all the time, I had the urge to find out what that song is saying. So I looked up the lyrics (with the English translation) online. I learned them surprisingly fast (maybe because I wasn’t required to, and it was something I did at my leisure.) To this day it’s the only Spanish I understand!

Thank you for reading this post!

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