WATERLOO — In 1968, Westminster Presbyterian Church saw a gap in entertainment opportunities for the local junior high crowd, so it created a monthly dance during the school year just for them.
“The thought was there wasn’t a whole lot for middle school students,” said Scott Cose, the church’s youth director. “Westminster wanted to provide a safe place where they can come and have fun, and it just exploded from there.”
“Exploded” is a good word. The Westminster Dance will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a reunion dance Aug. 24. Students who attended the dances before 2012 are encouraged to attend.
“Anybody who’s ever grew up in this area probably has attended one of these dances,” Cose said.
The longevity of the dances isn’t a surprise to those who’ve been to them. Melanie Thomas attended Westminster dances from 1986 to 1989 when she was a student at then West Intermediate School.
She and her friends, decked out in tight-rolled jeans, went every month to hang out and dance to the Beastie Boys. She recalls spending copious amounts of time in the girls bathroom.
“When I think of the amount of hairspray and electric blue eyeliner that was used in that bathroom — oh my goodness,” she said, laughing. “Everybody had the wall of hair.”
The monthly dance used to draw 500 students, but has since been capped at 350.
“When I came on board nine years ago, we decided it was just too packed in there,” Cose said. “For safety we took it to 350.”
Each of the 450 dances over 50 years has been staffed by 20-25 chaperones. Cose’s oldest volunteer, now in his 90s, recently retired from his chaperone duties.
“He would guard the front door. He would get up and dance with the kids. The kids love that. They see that people care about them. That’s huge. It’s been proven that every youth needs another adult other than their parents to be an influence in their lives,” said Cose.
Like for many parents locally, Thomas’ children also attended the dances. The same goes for some of the law enforcement officers who’ve kept watch on the dance floor over the years.
“We cannot go out into the community without meeting someone who’s been to or chaperoned one of them,” Cose said. “Some of our chaperones and officers helping now, they came to the dances as young people.”
Though the music has changed over the last 50 years, junior high students remain the same in many ways, said Jeff Lambert, a deejay for the Westminster dances since 2005.
“The sixth-graders, they might be a little shy, but by eighth grade they are seasoned veterans. It’s a nice place; it’s safe, it’s controlled and the kids still have a good time. They don’t have to worry about the crazy stuff outside. It’s a good escape for them.”
Melissa Summers, 31, who attended the dances as a Bunger Middle School student, agrees.
“It really was innocent fun. I was in sixth grade, and you always went with your girls. We all wore baggy JNCO jeans and WWF wrestling shirts. You got dropped off on the road nearby so no one saw your parents dropping you off. It was cool to see kids from different schools there, and it was always like the best thing if a guy asked you to dance,” she said, laughing.