The biannual LEAF Festival in Black Mountain might be most immediately associated with eclectic music and otherwordly costumes, or with poetry slams and celebratory tent villages, or with open-air yoga and ziplines that splash into Lake Eden. But the fete also attracts a dedicated community of dance enthusiasts, many of whom travel from across the country to revel in various forms of movement.
“It’s a ‘gathering of the tribe’ kind of event,” says Beth Molaro of Asheville, who has been calling contra dances at LEAF on and off since it began 22 years ago. “Everybody seems really happy to be there.”
LEAF returns for its autumn run Thursday, Oct. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 22. The theme this season is the “fantastic voyage,” referring to the potential for new and transformative perspectives. “When people step into their dance, they just really are in a place of embracing the moment,” says LEAF performing arts director Ehren Cruz. “And that’s what the fantastic voyage is all about.”
Feat of the feet
Cruz believes dance is at the heart of the LEAF experience. “The energy is really high and deep for dancing at LEAF,” he says, noting that — unlike at other festivals, where you might have just a few revelers dancing at the front of performances — at LEAF, a large portion of the audience is getting down at almost every stage. In front of LEAF’s main stage, where headliners this year include Toots & the Maytals and Los Lobos, a wooden dance floor accommodates all the stomping, tapping and shuffling feet.
Brookside Hall, the festival’s primary dance location, is the center of social dance action at LEAF. Brookside manager Mike Compton estimates that 300-400 dancers attend the festival for the contra dance alone. Compton has seen close to 500 on the floor at a time at Brookside, where, after a restorative early morning yoga session, dancing often starts at 9:30 a.m. and goes until 3 the next morning.
“I’d say there’s a brief moment of looking around and feeling overwhelmed by how many awesome dancers there are,” admits dancer and musician Sparrow, who has attended past festivals. “But then you just jump in and have fun.” Her Asheville-based group Sparrow and Her Wingmen will be playing a swing set at LEAF on Friday evening.
“LEAF has been the epicenter of contra dance in the Southeast since its origins,” says Cruz, who describes contra as a complex, group-style dance based on traditional folk music. The LEAF roster always features an impressive lineup of artists, and the dance hall is no exception. This fall, Great Bear, a group with a dedicated following that Cruz calls “one of the more renowned names throughout the world for contra dance,” will be performing along with Buddy System, a nationally touring act that plays both acoustic and live-electronic contra dance music. The groups share fiddler, mandolinist and foot percussionist extraordinaire Noah VanNorstrand, who recently relocated to Western North Carolina. The bands reflect what Compton observes as a growing trend in contra dance music — away from the small and strictly acoustic into more diverse, and increasingly electronic, instrumentation.
The fun never stops
After midnight at Brookside Hall, amid flashing lights, glow sticks, face paint and scanty clothing, a favorite among many dancers takes over the floor. Techno contra consists of traditional contra moves danced to remixed pop songs or, in the case of the Buddy System set on Saturday night, electronic music performed live. Unsuspecting LEAF-goers who wander by the hall in the wee hours often become mesmerized by the spectacle, which local caller Jesse Edgerton describes as having a more “thumping, energetic feel” than standard contras. Edgerton sees techno contra as a “release” for the dancers but warns that since there are no walk-throughs, it’s not well-suited for beginners.
Cruz calls the contra dance community the “anchor” of dance at LEAF, but emphasizes that the style is only one of many represented at the festival. “We nourish the local roots,” he says, “but we also throw a wide net.” Part of LEAF’s mission is to connect cultures, and the fall festival will include an Argentine tango workshop, Cajun dancing to Grammy-nominated band Feufollet, and swing, waltz and flatfoot dance workshops, in addition to blues-fusion and ecstatic-dance sessions.
About 40 percent of festival attendees come from Buncombe County, so dance opportunities at LEAF are an extension of the local area’s impressive dance scene. Around Asheville, one can find social dance options almost any night of the week. There’s contra dance Thursday evenings at Warren Wilson College, Monday evenings at the Center for Art & Spirit at St. George in West Asheville, and even more contra opportunities for those willing to drive to Marietta, S.C., and Jonesborough, Tenn.
Molaro, organizer of Asheville’s newly relocated Monday night contra dance, says the local scene is remarkable for its youthful dancers. Across the country, many contra communities are older, with a majority of dancers in their 40s to 70s, but here, the age range is diverse. Having a lot of young dancers brings exuberance to the scene, says Molaro. “It brings a creativity,” she explains, “because a lot of young dancers are coming from blues and swing dance experience, and they’re bringing elements of that into contra dancing, so it’s very innovative.”
‘Into the somatic experience’
One local spot for imaginative, boundary-pushing dancing is the dynamic and intimate blues fusion dance that happens at Veda Studios on Merrimon Avenue every other Saturday night. Another is the Tuesday night swing dance at The BLOCK off Biltmore, which features top-notch live swing bands.
The local ecstatic-dance scene is also robust, with free-form dance waves hosted by the Asheville Movement Collective on Sunday mornings at the Jewish Community Center and Friday evenings at The Academy at Terpsicorps. Trey Crispin of the band NataDas, which will be accompanying the ecstatic-dance session at LEAF’s Brookside Hall on Saturday, says this type of movement is characterized by “no partners, no words and no shoes,” and is often used as a tool of self-discovery. “It’s definitely a part of Asheville culture,” he adds.
At LEAF, there are plenty of opportunities for even nondancers to connect with the art form. Fire dancers from Asheville’s Unifire Theater, acrobats from Imagine Circus of Raleigh and The Faerie Kin, a roaming performance troupe, routinely wow festivalgoers.
Asheville-based Trillium Dance Company will showcase its blend of modern, jazz and hip-hop for the eighth time at the festival this fall. Trillium director Leslie Rogers sees dance as a powerful healer and describes the energy exchange that occurs between performers and audience members as real and palpable. In April, her troupe opened TRIBE Dance & Pole, a dance studio in Asheville. “I feel what is unique about dance is the opportunity to go deeper into your body,” Rogers says. “To be able to move out of the mind and the conscious thinking and into the somatic experience.”
“When you get a bunch of heartbeats in a room, and they all become happy and relaxed, it’s like a magnifying glass of each person’s experience,” says Crispin, who has developed a measure for participants’ dance experience. “When the wrists are down by the hips, someone’s having an OK dance. When they’re up by the ribcage, they’re enjoying themselves. And when they’re up by their shoulders, they’re having the best time they’ve ever had.”
At LEAF, wrists are often way above the shoulders.
Learn more about local dance events at danceasheville.com
WHAT: LEAF Festival
WHERE: Camp Rockmont, 377 Lake Eden Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 22. Weekend pass $180 adults/$150 children ages 10-17, community pass (no camping) $120/$105, Friday and Sunday passes $44/$45, Saturday pass $65/$60. Tickets available online only through Wednesday, Oct. 18. theleaf.org