More Than A Generation Of Dance Festivals

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Payson has hosted the Zane Grey Twirlers Square Dance Festival for the past 22 years.

The Zane Grey Twirlers, a group of square dance fans, with their festive costumes, has been an historical mainstay of the Rim country.

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John and Julie Shipp have been married for 43 years and dancing for 20. They are leaders of the Zane Grey Twirlers.

The yearly festival draws more than 300 dancers and the premier callers and cuers from around the country.

Many people attend just to enjoy the action and support their local club.

What ultimately became the Zane Grey Twirlers began in 1964 with a group of residents who got together, played records and danced at people's houses.

"It started with just a small group of people dancing to records in garages," Zane Grey Twirlers president John Shipp said.

In 1971, six couples danced regularly at the Mesa del Caballo clubhouse. By 1977, former councilman, Hoby Herron was actively involved with the budding group of dancers that later became the Zane Grey Twirlers.

"1981 was our first festival," said festival co-chair Elisabeth Burke.

"We raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association."

Although most of the proceeds from the festival go toward the cuers, callers and food, the Twirlers actively support community organizations such as the Payson Humane Society, Time Out Shelter and Payson Area Habitat for the Humanity.

The Twirlers are both a square and round dancing club.

"In a square dance you have eight people in a square, and round dancing is with a partner -- you do ballroom, cha cha, fox trot or waltz," Shipp said.

"A caller instructs square dancers on what to do. A cuer calls out what round dances to do."

The 90-plus-member organization holds local dances twice a month and gives lessons to those wanting to learn square dance technique. They encourage anyone of any age, including families, to take classes. Square dance classes will start in September.

"We are trying to get younger people, but it's been difficult," Shipp said.

"People think it's an old folks dance and it's not. We were young when we started," he laughs.

While Shipp estimates the average age of the dancers to be 65, he says that mentally and energy-wise, it's more like 35.

One of the hesitations some women have, is wearing the short hoop skirts that have become a trademark of the group.

Shipp's wife Julie understands the skirt issue.

"You can wear the traditional costume or a long prairie skirt. A lot of the ladies don't want to wear the fufu skirt," Julie said. "We never turn anyone away because they are dressed inappropriately."

"I feel for the ladies when they put those skirts on," Shipp said. "We want people to be comfortable, happy and to have fun. That's the main thing."

The Zane Grey Twirlers are more than a dancing club, they are a social group. This year, three of their members married. So it seems square dancing is a healthy alternative to meeting other single people in bars.

Enjoying a healthy hobby such as square dancing may also be good for a marriage. Many participants have been married for more than 40 years.

Elisabeth Burke and her husband Neil have been married 45 years, the Shipps, 43.

Square dancing is also a great way to slim down and get in shape.

"It's wonderful exercise, both mentally and physically," Julie said.

"You burn 400 calories in the course of an evening."

The culmination of the Twirlers' work is their festival which keeps the Rim country tradition alive and helps the local economy.

"Last year, we brought 350 people to Payson," Shipp said. "They stayed in motels, ate in restaurants, went shopping."

While it costs a nominal fee to participate in the dancing, spectators can attend and enjoy the finger foods and entertainment free of charge.

The festival, held at the Tonto Apache Recreation Center, kicks of at 7 p.m. Friday, June 13. Saturday's program starts at 8:30 a.m. with a pancake breakfast and welcome dance. Workshops are held during the afternoon and then things get rolling again in the evening with the Grand March and three more hours of dancing.

The Twirlers invite Rim country residents to come out and enjoy great dancing and delicious food, free of charge and help keep Rim country culture alive for future generations.

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