Around the world in 80 ways

Entering the second-floor studio newly designated as The Future of Tradition Center for Folkloric Arts, I experience a wave of total amazement at the space’s transformation.

Located at 129 Roberts St. — in the heart of the up-and-coming creative haven that is Asheville’s River District — this previously ramshackle space is now enjoying a vastly different incarnation. Devoid of trash, clutter and graffiti-tagged walls, the studio literally shines with inspiration.

Since I’d last been there, the scratched floor had been sanded and painted green — with one perfect circle in the room’s center revealing natural wood grain. The high ceilings and walls — freshly painted white — reflect light from nearby windows.

True to the studio’s purpose, art prevails in its every corner. Fiery Sanskrit Om symbols, African masks, medieval weapons, plants and drums — not to mention a real, live boa constrictor — confirm that this space is a creative sanctuary.

Crowning these sacred objects is an altar, set up in one corner. I’m told it’s a work in progress, to be used as a tool for community expression.

In essence, that’s what Future of Tradition is: a communal expression. While many similar organizations receive assistance from local government, this self-funded project exists solely through the motivation of those involved.

Heading the endeavor are dance teachers Draven Arcane and and Lauren Onca O’Leary. Primarily, the Center will be used as a performance space dedicated to nourishing Western North Carolina’s ethnic-arts community. And though it was created specifically to support the development of non-Western arts and disciplines, the Center will also rent space for classes, lectures, events, rehearsals and individual studio space for artists.

“The main room will be used for performance. We see this as a center for activity — not just for students. Other people can come and use the resources, such as our library. As we gain momentum, we hope to help a lot of people,” Arcane elaborates.

“This has been an enormous undertaking,” notes O’Leary. “Asheville is rich in opportunities to learn the arts of non-Western traditions. It’s amazing that such a small town can support a movement like this.”

Arcane adds, “The practitioners of African art forms are definitely some of the most passionate artists in this town. It’s a place for diversity.”

Most local students of ethnic arts are not natives of the cultures or countries in which those arts originated. But the Center’s co-proprietors hope that people from other countries will feel comfortable at their studio, thereby increasing the space’s diversity.

“The subject of ethnic arts is potentially loaded because of issues involving race and class,” admits O’Leary. “In bigger cities with a more diverse population, folks have had a chance to get excited about their own cultures. In Asheville, people like Kelly Davis [leader of the West African drum-and-dance ensemble Common Ground] and Draven are holding the space.”

“Art is the bridge,” notes Arcane, who teaches Capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian fusion of movement and self-defense).

Tribal belly dance (O’Leary’s specialty), kundalini yoga, a traditional-weapons forum and West African dancing are more examples of what you’ll find here.

But the Center’s name reflects its ultimate mission: Both Arcane and O’Leary say their goal is to help keep ancient art forms alive by teaching them to young people.

“We really want to outreach to the children and change more in here,” says Arcane, pointing to his head. “It is so important to express your vitality. Puritanical culture does not allow for human emotions to be expressed. Capoeira, for example, was created by African slaves because they were oppressed and needed it for survival.”

He acknowledges that the original functions of many traditional art forms may no longer be pertinent. Today, the emphasis is on education.

“This space is very important to preserving tradition,” clarifies O’Leary. “We are aware that things change and become relevant to the present. If we learn the language of tradition, then we are one step closer.”

The Future of Tradition Center for Folkloric Arts officially opens Friday, Feb. 2 with a 7 p.m. dedication ceremony. Performances in ethnic dance, a capella Celtic singing and traditional weaponry will follow, ending at 11 p.m. Admission is $5. For more info about the studio, call 232-2980 or visit

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