MOUNT ZION — Even before he really knew what it was, Tanner Keller could tell you the songs and the dances for the Mount Zion High School Swingsations.
Like many growing up in the Decatur area, Keller knew someone who was in the group. In his case, it was his older sister.
“(My sister) was a member, and she was always singing and dancing, and it would get in my head before I even knew what it was,” Keller said. “It seemed a part of me before I ended up ever doing it.”
Now a senior at Mount Zion High School, Keller is among the more than 50 members of the group who will help to celebrate the show choir’s 40th anniversary this year.
Along with hosting the 35th Annual Mount Zion Midwest Invitational, starting Jan. 20, the group’s spring show will be a celebration of the past and present of what has become one of the most decorated show choir groups in the nation.
“I believe the support of the administration and the community and the parents' support has been what has been the backbone of keeping it alive and strong,” said Connie Mulligan, who took over as director of the group last school year, a position she had previously held from 1991 to 2000.
The group had its genesis in 1973 with the creation of an all-girl swing choir, under the guidance of Roberta Vest, a Millikin University graduate. A few years later, several boys in the school asked to audition, and the swing choir soon become co-ed.
In 1977, the school’s instrumental director, Dwight Jordan, approached Vest about adding a combo, which incorporated trumpets, percussion and a bass guitar into the swing combo. As the group made changes and became a priority in its few years of existence, it was given a new name: Swingsations.
Even as he’s moved on from Mount Zion to become a nationally renowned choreographer, with work as varied as high school groups to productions put on by Six Flags Great America and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., Jordan remains the choreographer for the group.
Living in the Chicago suburbs, Jordan continues to make several trips down to Mount Zion each year to work with the group and prepare them for competition.
As to why he continues to make the trek, Jordan said it is for appreciation for all the opportunities the group opened up for him.
“It’s where I tested my wings, and I developed all of the ideas that I was able to use later on in other places,” he said. “But it’s really just where it began for me, and I’ve always had appreciation for that.”
Former members still feel the Swingsations pull.
The group has been a staple for assistant director Heather Pistorius. Before taking over the role, Pistorius was a member of the group in the early 1990s.
But her first memories of the group go back farther than that, as she fondly recalls the time when the group came to her elementary school to perform. It was there she knew what she wanted to do.
“You watch them when they come to your elementary school, you see the Swingsations perform when you’re in second and third grade,” she said. “You just say to yourself, ‘I want to be in that.’ Some people want to play football or basketball, and some people want to be in Swingsations.”
It is a common story when talking with current and past members of the group. As a member from 1986 to 1989, Shannon Lanier said she remembers seeing a number of Swingsation shows in her childhood.
“They were having so much fun, and I wanted to do that,” Lanier said, adding she was born into a musical family.
Now the Lanier family has become a Swingsations family, with Shannon’s mother also volunteering with the group. In addition, Shannon’s daughter, Margo, is about to complete her third year in the group.
The latter is one that truly means much for Shannon Lanier, especially as the group enters its 40th year.
“My daughter is going to get that sensation that, it’s not just about my four years, but it’s about something bigger,” Lanier said. “It’s about this really rich history and these hilarious stories and incredible achievements. It’s the legacy of the group, and they get to tap into that this year.”
Margo Lanier, a senior member of Swingsations, said she remembers looking at photos of her mother in the group, along with seeing the group live, inspired her to get involved as well once she got into high school.
Besides the singing and dancing, Lanier said the biggest takeaway has been working with students with the same goals and aspirations and developing life skills for beyond graduation this spring.
The history of the group never really settled in for Lanier though until a few weeks ago, when she put on a costume that brought up memories of those old photos.
“I think it’s really started to hit me ... our opening song costumes are a throwback to what (my mom) wore when she was a member in the '80s,” Margo Lanier said. “I don’t think a lot of people can fully understand just what all this group has become.”
One person who unfortunately will not be taking part in the festivities is Vest, who died in December. Past and current members expressed sadness that Vest would not be able to help celebrate the anniversary, but Mulligan said the plan is to make sure that Vest and all those who helped the group become what it is today are never forgotten.
“We want to make it as much as a celebration and an honor, we want to honor those who have paved the way for what we are enjoying right now,” she said.