Iowa's iconic dancer in overalls has died
John Kirsch, 78, died on April 5, 2017, but not before he cut a lot of rugs all over Des Moines. Wochit
A rural Iowa farmer who delighted crowds by busting moves, often wearing colorful overalls, at dance clubs, concerts and at the Iowa State Fair has died.
John Wayne Kirsch, of Lineville, was 78, but never stopped dancing. He even tried to boogie his way free from hospice.
Whether at Des Moines area dance clubs Miss Kitty’s, Shotgun Betty's or Denny Arthur’s, it didn’t matter the genre of music played. Country, rap, rock 'n roll — he loved it all, and didn’t need to drink to cut a rug. One video shows him particularly enjoying Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
“He always said all his worries went away when he danced,” said Terrie Severin, one of three surviving children.
His relatives stood among tombstones in the rural Peru Cemetery after his memorial service Tuesday, six days after his death, and laughed like crazy over his antics as roosters crowed from a nearby farm.
They laughed about his late-life fame. In recent years, videos circulated the internet of this senior Iowan’s rather risqué moves while clothed in colorful, striped overalls or draped in an American flag at venues such as the Iowa State Fair or the 80/35 Music Festival in downtown Des Moines.
“Our son lives in Turkey, and some of his friends noticed a video on YouTube. They said, ‘Look at this old guy dance!’ Our son looked at it and said, ‘That’s my uncle!’" said Connie Couts, Kirsch’s sister. “When he came home, he even took a photograph with him to prove it to them.”
All that was missing was a beat from Michael Jackson as they told how his love of dance began decades ago, down at the Lion’s Club in Truro, near where he farmed by St. Charles for many years before retirement, and then how he and wife Lorene got into serious square dancing for a while.
He didn’t slow down after her death in 1991, and, a few years later, met Wanda Findley, who would become his dance partner until her death last April. The two did everything from jitterbug to hip hop.
“You’d see him hunched over and looking like he could barely walk, but then he’d go out there and bust a move,” said his niece, Shannon Snyder, 23, of Winterset. “He was quite spunky. When he started dancing, he didn’t care what anybody thought.”
During the service, as a Cooper’s hawk danced in the wind above a circle of a couple dozen relatives and friends, Pastor John Safford said that in Ecclesiastes, it is written that there is “a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
All that was missing was Kevin Bacon rubber-necking to “Footloose.”
Kirsch was particularly fond of pole dancing, and would even perform an impromptu swing with a street sign if so taken by the spirit.
Friends said the man they called John Wayne was a joker who once put up a sign to his old place near Winterset that read, “John Wayne’s Birthplace,” but was pressured to take it down. He wasn’t perfect, but even the rows were softened when he told friends that he didn’t wear lily white.
“He knew how to speak his mind,” said Snyder, one of eight surviving grandchildren. “But I will take a lot from him how to live a life, that even when you're old, you can dance.”
They tried to mimic his signature moves with Findley, who was the genius behind Kirsch's eye-catching dancing outfits. Kirsch would twirl her and bend to roll her over his back. He would lie on the floor as she danced over him. He would bend his knees with the flexibility of a youngster and gyrate his hips enough to make a young woman blush.
“He always had 10 or 15 young ladies waiting to dance with him,” said son-in-law Brian Severin of Urbandale.
The death of 81-year-old Findley slowed him down, though. The last time relatives saw him dance was in January. The leukemia that was diagnosed in December quickly knocked him back. But when Brian Severin asked his father-in-law if he could use some of his blood, he declined.
“I want (a person) with more rhythm and blues,” he said.
They weren’t surprised to find the unlocked window open at the hospice recently. He’d made an escape and was about two miles away before the sheriff caught up with him. He said he was going to Fareway, and could still move with quick feet.
“That was John Wayne,” Severin said. “He always danced to his own beat.”