This weekend the town of Payson will not only be recognized on Flag Day as the "flag capital," with coverage by Phoenix Channel 3, but the TV media will also record the 23rd annual festival of the Zane Grey Twirlers.
This square dance club formed in 1964, and has conducted summer festivals since 1980. Their efforts have revived a Rim country tradition that played an important role in the "early days."
When Europeans immigrated to the New World, they brought their folk dances with them, and as they moved westward so did the dancing.
It was modified for the frontier conditions. Clogging from Appalachia was impossible with western boots, so the more gliding steps of big
circles and square dances were preferred. High lifting steps were designed to avoid wearing out the shoes on the rough-cut floors of pioneer buildings.
Since not all were familiar with the memorized dance steps, callers were employed to give directions.
New steps would often be invented to interpret the music of the local fiddlers.
Among the Rim country fiddlers were Charlie McFarland, Sam Haught, Pappy Haught, Franz Cooper, Dave and Harry Goodfellow, Fletcher Beard and Earl Jackson. On Main Street things got a bit more fancy, with a three- or four-piece band that would include Rose Childers on the piano and Bill Haley on the sax.
Dances were held for every occasion, including barn raisings, rodeos, Saturday nights, weddings, and the end of the roundup.
From its earliest days in 1882, Payson's Main Street had at least one dance hall, and the small schools dotting the Rim country were always available for Saturday night dances.
Within the memory of the generation now passing from the scene, it was common to spend a whole day traveling to one of these schools for a dance: Rim Rock, Tonto, Myrtle, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley, Gisela. Wherever there was a school, there was dancing.
Getting there was something else.
Valda Beard Taylor once told about going to a dance at the Tonto School. Before it was removed to Kohl's Ranch to become part of the Cowboy Bar, that school was located on the flat where Horton Creek flows into Tonto Creek.
Valda said, "We left our ranch in Star Valley in a wagon in the morning. Had lunch at a spring in Little Green Valley. Reached the schoolhouse for an evening meal. Danced 'til midnight, then we had supper. Everybody put out the food they had brought. Danced 'til the sun came up, had breakfast, then struck out for home.
"Took us two days and one night for that dance."
Theresa Boardman recalled her husband Bill and his brother Guy going as youths the 17 miles out to the Rim Rock school to dance. They would "ride and tie."
That is, one would ride the horse a mile, tie it to a tree, and continue walking. The other would catch up to the tied horse, ride it a mile, and tie it for the other fellow. Thus they each rode half way and walked half way, "'til they got there," she said, "and carrying their dance shoes all the way." They would usually spend the night at the Belluzzi ranch.
Ernest Pieper told about a dance in Pine, where five boys and five girls from Payson were in attendance. When the dance was over, in the small hours of the morning, it was so cold they knew they could not make it back to Payson. Vi Fuller took them in, putting the five girls in one bedroom and the fellows stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace.
The dancing in those days was so energetic that one lady said, in our oral history collection, "When a Payson pioneer dances, everything about him moves but his bowels."
Such devotion to dancing languished, as other forms of entertainment came along and modern transportation made socializing and courting much more accessible.
It was in 1964 that a revival began. An amateur square dance caller named Teri Robinson began a square dance club, and when she left, Ray Nafus purchased a turntable and records so the club could continue. Eight couples got together once a month to dance, moving their location often from the Mesa del Caballo Clubhouse to the old Moose Hall on Main Street to the Elks Lodge, to members' carports (one as far away as Thompson Draw), to Mountain Shadows RV Park, to the Julia Randall School.
The club found their callers where they could, and some of the dancers, like Ray and Maureen Nafus, came in from as far as Bonita Creek.
As time passed a class was added to the regular dances, so newcomers could learn the steps.
As with all groups, the participants changed due to age or sickness or moving away. But the club continued, younger couples joining and new leadership rising to the surface.
Hoby and Ida Herron arrived in the mid-1970s and brought new vitality to the club, even learning to call when some of the group had difficulty understanding the records. Herron made arrangements for the local community college to include the classes in their adult education program, and to provide the club with a place to learn and to dance until 1990.
Today the club continues its classes for newcomers (both beginning and advanced) each Wednesday night at the Lamplighter RV park in Star Valley, although the season is ending and will resume in September. The Saturday night dances occur twice each month at the Senior Center. Information is always posted in the Roundup.
The club has now grown to over 80 members, most of whom dance, some of whom watch.
As with all civic-minded clubs, the Zane Grey Twirlers decided to support a charity and launched an annual square dance festival. The first one was for the benefit of the Muscular Dystrophy campaign, and was held in the Payson High School gym. Each year the summer festival has drawn people to Payson from all over the state, and this year they are expecting their usual crowd of about 300 dancers.
Past-president Beverly Still Savage says, "Because of their hard work and organization, the Zane Grey Twirlers Square Dance Festival has never failed to be the most fun and best organized festival (of its kind) in the state."
The square dance is complex, requiring cooperation and teamwork. One author said when it is done well "it is like a well-timed piece of machinery." This is why it has always been the perfect dance for the Western frontier, where teamwork was necessary if settlers were to be successful. Cooperation and stamina were pioneer traits that carried over to the square dance.