“As an aerialist,” says Heather Poole, “you want to hang off of anything, all the time.” Poole co-owns Empyrean Arts — a center for movement and alternative fitness — with Waverly Jones. The studio offers classes in pole dancing, aerial arts, contortion, floor work and more. Empyrean Arts observes its fourth anniversary with Freakshow, a showcase of student performances (and birthday cake) on Saturday, July 27.
Empyrean Arts was created to a fill a void. Poole and Jones had both been teaching aerial arts around the Asheville area. Jones even offered instruction as part of Warren Wilson College’s circus program. It was Jones who first became interested in pole fitness and dancing, going so far as to install a pole for practice in her apartment.
“We consider ourselves to be aerialists-turned-pole dancers,” Poole explains. But the closest pole class at the time the two got into the art form was in Greenville, S.C., “and that was out of somebody’s house, too. There wasn’t a pole community [in Asheville].”
They teamed up with their friend Dakota Fox, the owner of Aradia Fitness USA in Cary. Part of the reason was that, during skill shares with Fox, “as aerialists, it was easier for Waverly and I to take to the higher-level pole skills because we already had a lot of that strength,” Poole says. “We wanted to make it accessible to people who weren’t aerialists.” So they purchased the pole curriculum from Fox.
The original plan was to open a pole dancing studio in Asheville. “But we thought, ‘We’re aerialists, we should offer aerialist classes,’” remembers Poole. “And I was like, ‘I’m a contortionist, so I want to offer contortion classes.’ It really quite easily built itself to become what it is.”
And, Poole points out, Empyrean Arts continues to grow. Last year the South Slope business expanded into the space next door, growing to three studio rooms. Current initiatives include a guest instructor program where visiting teachers sub in the studio’s regular drop-in classes so, instead of a one-off workshop, students can access out-of-town experts for multiple sessions using regular class credits.
That idea stemmed from an early intention of the Empyrean Arts concept. “We found ourselves traveling a lot for training,” Poole says. She and Jones didn’t want to leave Asheville to improve their craft, so by opening their own studio, “we found we could bring teachers here.” One of Poole’s mentors, rhythmic gymnastics champion Olga Karmansky, offers an annual contortion intensive at the local space.
These successes and more will be celebrated with Freakshow. The theme was decided collectively, Poole says, and it will feature 20 student artists “performing everything we have at the studio. … The acts are really stunning.”
Poole suggests arriving as close to when doors open at 6 p.m. as possible, as previous shows have sold out. But — despite being a main organizer of the anniversary production — when it comes to the performances, she remains largely hands off. “It’s been very important to me … that our students and performers feel like they have full creative freedom to perform as they want to,” Poole says. “As a performer myself, that has been something I’ve prized the most: the events where I can be myself and perform things that I’m feeling drawn to. I want to give that to others.”
Plus, she adds, “I try not to see people’s acts until the dress rehearsal because I like to be surprised.”
WHERE: Empyrean Arts, 32 Banks Ave., Studio 108, empyreanarts.org
WHEN: Saturday, July 27, doors at 6 p.m. and show at 6:30 p.m. Sliding scale $5-$15