Published January 23. 2012 4:00AM Updated January 23. 2012 3:21PM
Mohegan - The crowd swelled around a makeshift stage set up in the middle of the concourse at the Mohegan Sun shops Sunday afternoon, with people testing their cellphone cameras and jostling for a better view of the attraction to come.
"What? Is Elvis coming?" a passer-by said while trying to navigate through the crowd.
No, but hundreds of fans descended on the Mohegan Sun for the free dance performance by "Dancing with the Stars" champions J.R. Martinez and Karina Smirnoff. Fans screamed, cheered and snapped photos as the two made their way from the arena door along a somewhat cleared pathway to the stage.
Emcee Gary Craig of WTIC-FM said it was the largest crowd ever for the "Reality Check" series that comes to Mohegan Sun four times a year.
Martinez and Smirnoff greeted fans with hand slaps and smiles before launching into fast-paced dance that took them to every inch of the small stage, ending with a dramatic dip, Smirnoff's head just inches from the stage floor.
The crowd erupted.
"You are so loud and so marvelous," professional dancer Smirnoff said grabbing the microphone, "and we are very, very, very appreciative."
She then darted off the stage to change outfits for the next number, leaving Martinez with the microphone. It was a comfortable spot for the wounded Iraq War veteran, motivational speaker, actor-turned-celebrity dancer. He declared himself a "microphone hog" and answered questions from the audience while waiting for his dance partner to return for one more number.
J.R., he said answering the first question, stands for Jose Rene, but he found that name a bit difficult growing up, moving from town to town and trying to make friends. He's a junior, but his father abandoned the family when Martinez was just 9 months old, so he didn't want to use Jose in the "top spot." So it's J.R.
"It was a problem when I lived in Dallas," he said. "Everyone kept asking me, 'Who shot JR?' I had no idea."
Mixing humor with dance and audience interaction, Martinez didn't much touch on his life's story that has captured the nation's attention.
At age 19, Martinez was one of the first U.S. soldiers to enter Iraq in spring 2003. In April, his Humvee struck a roadside bomb. The explosion caused severe burns over 40 percent of his body. He was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he was in a coma and faced years of recovery, including learning how to walk again.
On stage Sunday, a slightly wrinkled brow atop his tall, lean, athletic frame was the only visible evidence of the ordeal.
Some fans drove hours to attend the hour-long event and stood patiently in an autograph line that stretched from the Godiva Chocolates store over the bridge past the big waterfall.
Wayne McDonald wore a New England Patriots' hat as he and his wife, Loanne McDonald waited in the autograph line after the show. It was approaching game time for the Patriots' against the Baltimore Ravens for a spot in the Super Bowl. But the couple wanted to see Martinez and Smirnoff perform live. The McDonalds taped the game on TV and didn't even want to listen to it on the radio on their way home to Derry, N.H.
For Elsie McCabe of Bayonne, N.J., the show was a birthday present for "a big year" she would not reveal. Her daughter couldn't believe that McCabe had planned to drive all the way to Mohegan Sun to see Martinez. She watched "Dancing with the Stars" every week and knew Martinez and Smirnoff would win. She also watches "All My Children," where Martinez plays an Iraq War veteran.
"I said to my friend, 'is that makeup?'" she said of his scars. "She said 'no.' It's incredible."