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The Working Vacation & The Gentlemen Host Program

From Parish Priest
to Probation Officer
to Traveling Dance Host

by Sara Piazza

Jack Burton has always enjoyed dancing. As a boy growing up in St. Louis he recalls, "We all danced. It was part of gym class. We had partners and we learned all the basic steps right from the beginning- the waltz, the fox-trot and the rhumba. There was no such thing as standing around at a dance, there were no wallflowers- that was unheard of. In the forties we danced to the music of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. In the fifties we had Bill Haley and the Comets and the beginnings of rock and roll. Dancing was a big part of our lives then."

Eventually, with the advent of his career, first as an Episcopal Priest in the Diocese of Southern Ohio for ten years; later he would serve the County of Dukes County as our probation officer for twenty-seven years; and raising a busy family, which included three boys, each two years apart, he hung up his dancing shoes.

Jack Burton, priest, probation officer and dancer, though of retirement age, is himself boyish in his appearance. He is often seen riding his bicycle, an older model with fenders, around Edgartown on his daily errands. He runs five days a week, and maintains a regular fitness program. Jack has a kind smile and a gentle, almost shy manner that makes him approachable and easy to talk to. When he takes his turn filling in for Father Bob Edmunds in the pulpit at St. Andrew's, there's an authenticity, an innocence in his voice that is both reassuring and welcoming. Jack lives in a gambrel-style house near an overgrown apple orchard that was once part of Orin Norton's farm. He has been retired from his probation officer's job for a year and a half. In retirement, Jack tries to "keep life simple." He attends a regular Bible-study group, works in his garden, tinkers with an old sports car, and is building a screened-in cabin in his back yard. He says he doesn't need a lot of "things" in his life. He doesn't have a computer or a microwave, and only recently started using a touch-tone telephone with a built-in answering machine, a gift from his boys. He says his true treasures are his relationships.

About ten years ago, with his family grown, and with much more time on his hands, and feet, for that matter, Jack returned to the dance floor, joining dancers at the Piatelli Studios in North Tisbury. His dance partner then was Carol Carrick, a friend and fellow parent with two sons the same age as his. It was at this time that Jack and Carol began a weekly Sunday night ballroom dancing class in the parish hall of St. Andrew's, later to be joined by dancers Ted and Christine Box and Tom and Dorothy Newton. "About 15 people came to the class every week. We took turns teaching. Occasionally one of us would go off to Boston and learn something new and bring it back to the group. I even went to Albuquerque, New Mexico and learned country-dance. Most people know basic dance-steps, and sometimes people know nothing and need to start from scratch. Sometimes couples about to be married would drop in to brush up on their dance-steps for their wedding reception." These classes have continued to this day, and are offered at no charge, though they have moved to their summer home at the Nathan Mayhew Seminars in Vineyard Haven.

Besides dancing, another passion in Jack's life is traveling. He has traveled all over the world, sometimes alone with a backpack, sometimes with his sons, or with Carol, who has become his steady dance partner and traveling companion. He has been to places such as Eastern Europe; Paris; Italy; Austria; the Greek Islands; Japan; China and has traveled throughout our Southwest.

Four or five years ago Jack was on a Hawaiian cruise, where he was introduced to the concept of dance hosting. "A dance host's job is to dance with women on the cruise ship. I thought it looked interesting. I could already dance, and I loved to travel. I thought it would be a great way to see the world." When he got home he signed up for a "gentleman host program." His training took four months, and involved a couple of trips to New York City for an audition and an interview, learning the rules of the game, and finally for certification as a dance host.

"First of all, there's no romance involved, that's a very strict rule. We only dance with women who are obviously traveling solo. When the band plays, we dance, and we don't leave anybody out. It's not a time for lessons, though occasionally someone will say, 'will you show me a new routine?'" He loves getting dressed up in his tuxedo, or in his casual dance clothes- white slacks, navy blazer, red tie and white dress shoes, and he meets many interesting people. He tells one story of a woman who, as he was about to turn her around on the dance floor, gave a high kick that went clear over his head. She turned out to be a retired Rockette from Radio City Music Hall.

Last spring Jack was a dance host on a fourteen-day cruise that began in Osaka, Japan, and sailed to Hong Kong, and back to Osaka. The cruises always include tours on shore, and he had an opportunity to see the Great Wall and visited Shanghai and Nagasaki. He recently returned from a cruise that originated in Rio de Janeiro, cruised down around the Cape, up the West coast of South America, past Argentina, Peru and Ecuador, and through the Panama Canal back to Rio.

"It was a fascinating trip. I saw the Southern Cross-something I thought I'd never see. We went through locks in the canal, which was an interesting experience." Jack went on seven cruises this past year, two at a time, back to back, and says, "Every cruise is a new beginning with new people, new dynamics and new countries." He says the people are an "older crowd," with an average age of 67. "They love to get dressed up and dine and dance. There are lots of sequins. I've never seen so many sequins." Jack Burton has a good life, and he knows it.

"It's really a pleasant life. I'm still working with people, but now instead of the intensity of working as a parish priest, or with people in crisis in the court system, I'm dressed up in a tux, dining in style, and dancing every night. I meet wonderful, sociable people, and of course, I get to travel around the world. This fits in with my retirement very nicely." After 35 or 40 days on a cruise Jack is ready to come home-to small town life, his bicycle errands, his yard projects, and to the quiet. "The cruises are fun, but we all need a little quiet in our lives. I'm always glad to come home."

This article was originally printed in the July 8, 2000 edition of the Martha's Vineyard Times.

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