SALT LAKE CITY — Tom Mattingly's dance career began not with his training, but with that of his sisters.
“When I was about 4 or 5, my sister started taking dance lessons,” said the former Ballet West dancer. “I would stand on a chair and watch and imitate the teacher. The teacher saw me and, seeing a boy interested in dance, brought me into the class and talked to my mom.”
After his mom mentioned the family’s budget, the teacher said, “Well, until you can afford it, he can take for free.”
And so began a lifelong love of dance and a fulfilling career for Mattingly that brings him back to Salt Lake City with the upcoming national tour of “An American in Paris,” which will be at the Eccles Theater Oct. 10-15.
His sister quit taking dance after a while (opting for swimming), but Mattingly never looked back.
“I think I was around 9 when I found out I could dance as a career — like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Baryshnikov," he said. "From then on, I knew I wanted to be a professional. I never had any other aspirations for a more conventional career path.”
Mattingly jumped, leaped and pirouetted his way up the dance ladder.
“I did summer intensives, and when I was 16 years old, I left home to go to Virginia School for the Arts and finished high school there," he said. "We did our classes in the morning and then we’d dance until 8:15 at night, five days a week. And Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m., it was like being at summer camp every day — it was great. And I was surrounded by other dancers.”
The day after Mattingly graduated, he drove off to Richmond, Virginia, to audition for the Richmond Ballet where an apprentice dancer had broken his foot.
“They gave me the job on the spot,” he said. “I was dancing professionally when I was still 17 years old — my parents had to sign for me to allow me to do it; I wasn’t of age.”
He spent two years with Richmond Ballet, a year with Cincinnati Ballet then made the move to join Ballet West where he danced for six years, from 2008-2014.
“It all happened really quickly,” Mattingly said. “Being with Ballet West and having so much success there, I knew from then on I’d never have a better job than I did with Ballet West. I worked so well with the artistic staff there.”
After 10 years of focusing on his ballet career, he said he didn't feel fulfilled in his personal life and felt his life didn't have balance. He made the move to Chicago and began freelancing and teaching.
“I realized even though I wasn’t with a big ballet company anymore, which I thought I would always do, that I can do other things and still be happy," he said. "I’ve never been happier.”
Enter “An American in Paris,” the stage adaptation of the classic Kelly film featuring the music of George Gershwin. Mattingly returns to Salt Lake City with the upcoming tour playing the understudy and swing for five different characters in the show.
“I have to learn five different parts so I can cover any of them at any given time,” he explained.
Mattingly was invited to audition when the musical was first prepping for the Broadway opening, but a recent promotion at Ballet West at the time left him wanting to stay in Salt Lake City.
“Later, when I heard they were auditioning for the tour, I called some friends who were in the show and asked what they thought,” he said.
While the musical features one memorable Gershwin tune after another ("Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "‘S Wonderful"), it’s the dancing that sets it apart.
“The show is very technical,” Mattingly said. “But it always moves with such style. Sometimes it gets classified as a dance show or a ballet show, but it’s really quite balanced and really presented as a classic American Broadway show.”
The Salt Lake performances will be the end of the road for Mattingly, who will then head back to Chicago.
“Salt Lake is the last chance for audiences to see the original touring cast,” he said. “A lot of the performers' contracts end after Salt Lake so it will be special.”
While in Salt Lake City, Mattingly is eager to grab a bite at Siegfried’s Deli, visit his friends and perform on the Eccles Theater stage.
“I’ve heard (the theater is) beautiful," he said. "This will be the perfect way to end my tour.”
If you go ...
What: "An American in Paris," national tour
When: Oct. 10-15, times vary
Where: Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main
How much: $38 - $149
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."