An effort to pass the art of baton twirling to the next generation has brought the Ohio Valley's newest team of twirlers into the spotlight.
About a year ago, Wheeling resident Christy Hayes-Schwertfeger started the Ohio Valley High Steppers twirling team for girls ages 4 and up who want to learn the art of baton twirling. The team meets on Tuesday evenings for rehearsals. The group of girls, many of whom had never twirled a baton before, performed routines in public this year during the Bethlehem Fourth of July celebration and as a marching unit in the St. Clairsville Holidays on the Hilltop and Wheeling Perkins Restaurant & Bakery Fantasy in Lights Christmas parades.
"I'm so impressed with how far they've come," Schwertfeger said. "Individually and as a group, they're awesome. I really have high hopes for them."
The Ohio Valley High Steppers baton twirling team capped off a year of hard work and weekly rehearsals with its first holiday season parade appearances. Pictured, in front from left, are Jenna Cecconi, Eden DeMuth, Sara Gruber, Katie Cecconi and Ava Davis. In back, from left, are Amaya Snider, Kali Donahie, Chelsea Bleifus, Anne Nettles, Ashlee Schwertfeger, Coach Christy Hayes-Schwertfeger, Elena Polinsky, Annaliese Ayres, Chloe Imer, Anya Ritz and Ashley Cecconi. Not pictured are team members Savannah and Erica Grim.
Schwertfeger is a former competitive twirler who was passed the baton at an early age.
"I started twirling when I was 4, and my mom twirled for her band when she was in high school. I happened to really like it and started competing," Schwertfeger said.
Schwertfeger said she learned to twirl from the late Karen Duncan, who taught at a studio in St. Clairsville and was an important influence in Schwertfeger's life. Schwertfeger said Duncan taught her for 11 years before she passed away at the young age of 34.
After her teacher passed, Schwertfeger competed for one more year and then continued to twirl with the St. Clairsville Band before doing so for Bethany College. After graduation, Schwertfeger married and moved away to Virginia where she gave birth to her daughter, Ashlee. At this point, twirling faded into the background temporarily as the responsibilities of caring for her family came into focus.
However, after casually teaching her daughter how to twirl, she saw how much she enjoyed it and Schwertfeger knew she had to start teaching again.
"She loved it," Schwertfeger said of her daughter, who also has become a competitive twirler. "At that point when I started teaching other kids and Ashlee became involved, baton twirling took on a whole new meaning. It became a great vehicle for her self-esteem. I knew it had meant all those things to me, but never realized it until I was teaching my daughter. I was really shy (growing up), but when I was competing, I felt good. That's something I want to give back to girls, especially those who may be struggling with self-esteem issues or maybe those with physical disabilities or special needs, so they have something they can feel good about."
Schwertfeger started a twirling group in Virginia. When her family returned to the Ohio Valley after 21 years, she decided to start coaching again.
"What I want to pass on to my twirlers is a sense of confidence," Schwertfeger said. "I want them to become comfortable performing in front of people. Twirling is challenging but fun. It's an art comparable to gymnastics, and it's evolved over the years. If twirling inspires these kids to be confident, it's something that can carry over from performances to the classroom and into other areas of their lives."
Schwertfeger is currently coaching 17 girls of various ages and experience, and hopes they will continue to grow as they become more involved in the community. She said she plans to see the High Steppers become involved with more parades, community events and special projects in 2014.
With Christmas parade appearances behind them, the group is beginning to rehearse new routines and is looking forward to resuming practices at St. Michael Parish School in January. New members are welcome to join at any time, and the class is not limited to girls. Some boys have participated in the classes, Schwertfeger noted, adding that some of the best competitive twirlers of today are boys.
Anyone interested in more information or registering for the Ohio Valley High Steppers may contact Schwertfeger by calling 304-975-4447.