No one could miss them as they danced every dance — she in a violet sheath dress, he in a white shirt and tie.
Whatever the band played — be it a swing song, two-step, waltz or fox trot — Kevin Wheeler and Celeste Allen knew dance steps to match.
For anyone attending the Mogollon Health Alliance’s seventh annual Black and White Ball this past Saturday, these two channeled dancers from the Big Band era and epitomized why people come to this yearly event — to dance!
Oh — and to raise money for local charities, including the effort to bring a university campus to Payson.
No one could have guessed that a scant year before, Wheeler had never done a ballroom dance step and Allen had never been to a ball, despite her many years in Payson.
Their passion and flair for dance won them the Best Dancers award for the evening.
“This is my first ball!” gushed a wide-eyed Allen as she returned to her seat after winning the award. “I can’t believe it — I feel like Cinderella!”
The Black and White ball offers Payson residents and visitors from Phoenix a chance to dust off tuxes, tails, floor-length gowns, feather boas, and gems to support the Mogollon Heath Alliance (MHA).
The non-profit organization owns the facilities occupied by the Payson Regional Medical Center. It's core mission is improving rural health in the Rim Country.
The MHA also brings in grants to support health education and medical needs in Rim Country. This past year, MHA secured funding for Rim Country schools to purchase computers and technical equipment for distance learning.
MHA executive director and event organizer Sanja Long said the event raised $45,000 for MHA and the numerous causes the organization supports. This year, MHA donated all funds raised at the silent auction to the Rim Country Education Alliance. The auction raised $7,500. Thirty more people attended the event, adding six more tables than last year.
Wheeler said he and Allen are friends of Long, who extended the invitation so they could dance.
For Wheeler, the event was a chance to dance the night away. He said he has loved to dance since first trying it a year ago.
“Celeste and Ruth (another friend) taught me everything,” he said. “They were so nice, helpful and patient.” He takes weekly lessons and religiously attends the Friday night Tiny’s restaurant dances.
Wheeler and Allen rushed through the buffet dinner designed to capture the Italian flavor of the Chicago themed evening.
Mazatzal Casino chef Rick DePhilippis whipped up two different pastas, double-baked potatoes, prime rib, green beans almandine and salad. Guests could take as little or as much as they pleased from the buffet. For dessert, the pastry chef made three cakes, frosting them to look like suit jackets and ties.
Mayor Kenny Evans and his wife, Linda; town council member Su Connell and her husband, Stan Garner; Payson Roundup publisher John Naughton and his wife, Patti; and MHA executive director Sanja Long and her beau, Carl Anthony; along with many other couples, shared the dance floor with Wheeler and Allen.
Most of the night, the floor was full of dancers as the 20-plus piece Sonoran Swing band played song after song from the Big Band era when everybody danced. The room glowed with tiny lights and shimmering streamers and old and new friends connected at Payson’s toniest event of the year to raise money for health in the Rim Country