Everyone loved John. How could you not? He exuded the love of life, the love of his friends and family, the love for his hunting dogs, the love of country western dance. His wide-open smile, his head thrown back singing the lyrics to the songs he danced to, the eruption of laughter, which came easily to him. He had just plain fun --- and his joy was contagious. All near him caught the fever, and wherever he danced, the people around him smiled and laughed and the faces lit up the room. We should have dozens more like him.John--a San Franciscan of Maltese origins, was a dancer's dancer. He took up CW dancing about three years ago, taking my class in Millbrae, on the SF Peninsula. He was not so great at learning at first, and not so graceful either. But, his joy and sense of humor made him very special to us--who cared if he was not Fred Astaire? His passion and pleasure was a wonder to all of us, even we old-timers/instructors.

He danced as he lived life--fully, with his whole heart, mind, soul, body. He had other loves--hunting and fishing. But he loved the dancing and the dancers most of all. He'd walk beginners through dancers on the floor, to encourage them and give them the sense of joy he'd learned. He taught them not only "the dance' but the pleasure it can bring. He made others his family, which is what we old-timers try to do, and not always successfully. As his instructor, he was an inspiration to me. I felt and passed on to others his enthusiasm.

Encouraged by his many friends to enter a line dance competition, John asked me to help him, coach him if he entered. I was scheduled to iudge this competition, but I wanted too much to work with John and give him the confidence he needed, that I removed myself from judging the Beginner-level division so I could share this experience with him. Would have been a bit of a conflict of interest-yes?

The main reason for John's decision to enter the competition was the fact that his very favorite line dance, Hedy McAdams' "Fly Like a Bird" was one of the required dances. Need I say more? I choreographed some special moves for him--several toe points with holds and a touch to the tip of the brim of his cowboy hat. Very cool. We made sure all moves were related to his personal style. Contest day arrived, and John almost passed out when he saw that his fellow com- petitors were in their 20's , and they were all hoppy and jivey. A couple of stiff belts calmed him some --- but most of all, I had to remind him that "flash can be just trash" and that those guys did not related to the "feel" of the dance, or the music, and that his more sophisticated and "cool" approach was much more appropriate. Syncopated and fast does not equal---good! So it was to our fortune that "FLB" was the first of the three dances. The music began, he lighted up like a Christmas tree, and he dived into "his" dance. He was wonderful And the judges must have thought so too, because he won this dance. AND HE WON THE DIVISION TITLE BY ONE POINT --- the one point coming from his runaway victory in "Fly Like a Bird." Accepting his trophies, he acknowledged and kissed me, and it was one of the most wonderful moments in my life, and remains a treasured memory. His joy was expressed to the world, and all who saw it applauded. And John was probably never so happy and proud as he was that day. It was a triumph for him.

Then, John became a key member of our "Bubba and his other brothers, Bubba" comedy team that competes only at Maggie Green's "Silver State Dance Festival" in Reno each Spring. The team placed second once, then first. John was a beloved brother of the six guys who compose this team --- they do the "story" in front of a large chorus of dancers. He was so proud!!! to be a Bubba.

Then, on October 31, 1997, John suffered a surprise stroke and died on Nov. 2, 1997. We went into shock. He was only 51. We think he was taken from us too soon, but it seems God wanted a good line dance teacher--someone who could teach the dance and teach the love of just doing it --- so John left us. He "Flew Like a Bird" to Heaven, and we know he looks down on us as we dance all dances, but especially that one. Hedy attended John's funeral, as did at least 200 people-his huge Maltese family and his Country Western family. She was very moved to learn that her dance was his favorite --- her expression was heart-rending. The Bubba brothers floral tribute was a huge golden cowboy boot that said, "Now he really Flies Like a Bird." He is sorely missed, but we will never forget him, or forget the lessons he taught us---Be Kind, Be Helpful, Share the Joy, Laugh a lot, Enjoy Life. Our time is too short to be otherwise.

Every Friday night we put on a dance at the Moose Lodge in San Bruno, Cal.-on the SF Peninsula. When it is time to do "Fly Like a Bird," we announce, "Let's do John's dance." Everyone knows what it is. Thanks, Hedy, and other choreographers who give us the dances we love so much that they take us right out of this world, and into a joyous one.


by Diane Montgomery

"...his joy

was contagious"

John Vassallo with friend Lorraine Kurtela after winning first place in his division. (Photo courtesy of Lorraine Kurtela)

Author Diane Montgomery

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Tribute to John Vassallo