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Iowa couple work to revive square dancing in Waterloo

March 23, 2019

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Jerry and Donna Amfahr have made it back to square one.

The couple assisted in building a vibrant square-dancing community in northeast Iowa in the 1950s. Now they are reintroducing the folk dance at the Jesse Cosby Neighborhood Center in Waterloo. Classes for all ages are slated to begin this summer, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.

“It’s really a lost art,” said Jesse Henderson, director of the Jesse Cosby Center and great-nephew of Cosby.

Jerry, 86, and Donna Amfahr, 84, dance up to five times a week with the Merry Mixers Square Dance Club, a Buchanan County square dancing group formed in 1955 with Cosby as its first caller.

The couple were both widowed when they married in 1989. They knew each other from square dancing.

The Amfahrs popped into the Cosby Center several weeks ago to see if anyone was interested in hearing square dancing stories from the early 1950s.

“We were always going to come by, and I never got to it,” Jerry Amfahr said. “We had guidance, I guess, that week because it just worked out. I mean they took care of everything and things flowed together.”

The day they stopped by was less than a week before the center’s annual dinner event in February.

“They were a godsend,” said Henderson, who has worked at the center for 12 years and served as director for the past five years.

Henderson invited the Merry Mixers to dance at the event for about 150 people. Henderson and his wife, Beverly Henderson, square danced together for the first time.

“I just thought that was the greatest thing, because since I’ve been director I’ve always wanted to have at one of our banquets a square dance,” Henderson said. “Everybody enjoyed it at the banquet. They just thought it was the best thing in the world. It brought back a lot of memories for people who used to square dance.”

Square dancing involves a caller who tells the dancers what moves come next with commands like “circle left,” ″do si do” and “promenade.”

“You don’t have to be fancy on your feet,” Donna Amfahr said.

Traditional attire for square dancing has evolved from bright, fluffy skirts to a more country-western theme. The couple is eager to attract more square dancers.

They will attend the 56th Iowa State Convention for square dancing in April as well as the national convention in Atlanta, Georgia, in June.

They say the secret to staying active at their age is “wonderful friends.”

“We’re kind of like a family,” Jerry Amfahr said.

The couple attempted to have Iowa join 19 other states that have named square dancing the official state dance. A bill was written in the late 1990s, but never made it out of committee, they said.

Jesse Cosby was born in 1907 in Alabama. Early reports from the Cosby Center indicate he was very poor and scrounged for food. Henderson recalled hearing stories that Cosby’s favorite food was squab, or baby pigeon.

“In order to make his life better he went into the service,” Henderson said.

Cosby served in France during World War II, and a relative in Waterloo encouraged him to live in Iowa. He made the move in 1945 and made a life and a name for himself in the Cedar Valley.

“He was trying to break down the racial barriers,” Henderson said.

Cosby got a job at the Waterloo Recreation Commission and accepted donations from area churches to build a recreation center for youths on the east side of Waterloo.

“I guess while he worked there he would see other people doing golf and tennis ... and so he would try and integrate that into the African-American community,” Henderson said.

Along the way he picked up square dancing and became a certified caller.

The Cosby Center archives said, “People travel hundreds of miles just to hear Jesse call,” according to Ray Forsberg, former superintendent of the commission.

Cosby also formed an a capella choir that traveled the Midwest, winning contests and integrating neighborhood churches.

Cosby died in 1957 at the age of 50.

His name lives on at the center that has served as a multicultural, multigenerational service provider for the disabled, sick, shut-ins, homeless and low-income households in crisis for the past 50 years.

Henderson wrote his thesis on Cosby when he was studying for his master’s degree in leisure, youth and human services at the University of Northern Iowa. He is now working toward his second master’s degree in public policy.

The Jesse Cosby Center is located in the historic 77-year-old former St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.

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Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com