For most of her life, Asheville resident Maui Vang was a self-described “wallflower.” The daughter of Laotian immigrants, she tells Xpress, “My culture is not very dance oriented.” In 2016, however, she discovered Zumba, the Latin-inspired dance fitness program.
“You’re exercising, but over time, you get better at dancing. And I worked up the courage to start branching out of the dance fitness world [into dance],” she says.
By last August, she was regularly driving across town to take Zumba, hip-hop and Latin dance classes at multiple locations. Dancing helped her release her growing discontent with her job as a financial adviser. “When you are in the presence of talented dancers, it gives you hope and inspiration,” she says.
When Vang learned on Facebook that a local studio was closing, the entrepreneurial spirit she inherited from her parents kicked in. During her lunch hour, Vang swung by the building and got the landlord’s contact information. Within days, she had assembled a business model for an adult dance studio and signed a lease.
Uphora Dance Fitness opened on Halloween weekend 2022. (Originally called Revel Dance Fitness, Vang recently changed the name due to a trademark issue.) She estimates about 600-800 people have taken a class at its Patton Avenue location near Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack.
Uphora is not the only dance studio to open recently, however. In January, Becky Ewing and her son, Jeff, opened Momentum Dance & Events in Candler, which offers ballet, tap and jazz and has five adult classes per week. And even established dance studios, like the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, have added new classes since they reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown.
“After the pandemic, people wanted to do something more with their bodies,” observes Susan Collard, director and founder of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, now in its 52nd year.
So, why is dance such a fulfilling form of wellness for many locals?
Fitness vs. technique
When looking for a dance class, it’s helpful to know the distinction between dance fitness and dance technique. As Vang explains, dance fitness programs like Zumba are more repetitive when it comes to the steps used and the music played. (Many songs are unique to Zumba.) The instructor provides lots of cues to help people new to the steps follow along, although Vang says the ultimate goal is to keep moving.
“Even if someone shows up brand new [and] everybody’s going one way [and] they’re going the other, they don’t get corrected,” she says. “You master the songs over time, and you get a good workout as well.”
Denise Rice Booher discovered Zumba in 2012 when an instructor offered classes after work at Leicester Elementary School. “When I do Zumba, the hour passes fast. I don’t feel like I’m exercising at all,” she says. She loved it so much that she taught the class for two years, though nowadays she prefers to follow rather than lead. After about a year and a half hiatus during the pandemic, Booher now goes to three Zumba classes a week at two different YMCA locations around town.
In dance technique classes, however, instructors critique and correct form. “The goal is to improve your technique,” Vang says. Uphora offers a variety of dance technique classes, including salsa, bachata, hip hop and even twerking. Often, students from the dance fitness side of the building check out what the dance technique side is doing, and vice versa.
“It’s this collision of different people there for different styles of dance, and it cross-pollinates,” Vang says.
Vang also tries to cultivate a similar diversity among dancers and instructors.
Inclusion and equity are foundational to Uphora’s mission, and Vang actively recruited a diverse group of instructors to her studio. In addition, she was committed to addressing what she considers the chronic underpayment of dance instructors in Asheville. Elsewhere, most are paid hourly, but she chose a revenue-sharing model for her nearly 25 instructors.
“[I wanted] to lift up the instructor community and shine a light on the craft and the work and the art that they do, and the value that they bring to our community,” she says.
Classical and contemporary
Dance technique classes appeal to many adults who took dance classes in childhood. Rechelle Ray danced jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, musical theater and ballet in competitions as a child and teenager and was on the Cleveland State University Dance Team throughout college. When she moved to Western North Carolina, she was thrilled to discover Stewart/Owen Dance, a contemporary dance studio that offers beginner and intermediate contemporary classes, as well as a senior class, at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.“They offer some of the few classes in this town that focus on technique and foundational dancing,” Ray says. “Gavin [Stewart] and Vanessa [Owen‘s] classes refueled my love for dancing again.”
While most of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater’s New Studio of Dance focuses on training younger dancers, it also offers adult ballet and modern dance classes. But it’s the newest adult classes that are gaining traction. When the studio reopened after lockdown, Collard says, a student’s parent requested a movement class for adults. “She loved to dance, but she never had the opportunity,” Collard recalls.
To Collard’s surprise, the six-week class filled up quickly and has done so every season they’ve offered it. “I use the same skills that I use with my dance company to create movement: the elements of dance, space, time, shape and energy,” she says. She’s been pleasantly surprised by the mix of ages in the classes, with students in their 20s participating alongside dancers in their mid-60s and early 70s.
“It all works. At the end of the class, everyone is feeling up,” she says.
“Contemporary dance for me has always meant breaking away from the normal dance regime and using my body and other dancers’ bodies in a more experimental way,” Collard adds. “Nothing is wrong as long as you’re moving your body.”
This season, ACDT will add a beginner-to-intermediate rhythm tap class for adults, taught by Anita Feldman, a former professor of dance and experimental tap dancer and choreographer.
Empowerment in movement
When it comes to dance, adults have far more options than just contemporary and ballroom dance — even at those traditional studios. At Momentum, for instance, Jeff Ewing offers a contemporary class in release technique, a form of modern dance that emerged in the 1970s. “This style is focused on the natural rhythms of biomechanics to achieve a high level of flow and freedom,” explains Becky Ewing.
For Alina Zarzycki, pole dancing and burlesque classes at Empyrean Arts give her a similar sense of well-being and empowerment.
“You feel more comfortable in your body,” says Zarzycki. She appreciates how she can leave class having learned new steps and skills. “I look good doing it, and I feel good doing it,” she says of the body waves and hip rolls that pole dancing and burlesque classes offer.
Wellness in community
For many of the people interviewed in this article, the opportunity to move with others — whether or not they touch — is a crucial part of what makes dancing such a special activity.
“I like to be around other people who are learning things with you,” Zarzycki says.“Uphora offers a safe space to have fun and be your full self in community, [without] feeling judged,” Vang says.
For Amanda Levesque, a longtime resident who uses a wheelchair, dance enables her to connect physically with collaborators and artistically with an audience. Over the last decade, she has performed improvisational contact dance with her longtime collaborator Tom Kilby at the Asheville Fringe Festival. “I get to go on the floor and roll around, which I love,” she says. “I love the feeling of weight on my body.” As a wheelchair user, these sensations are ones she does not regularly experience.
Kilby moved away last year, so Levesque is collaborating with dancer and physical therapist Idelle Packer on a piece called “Inside Amanda.” “Dance means freedom, spontaneity, the ability to be myself and to embrace myself in a way other than with words,” she says.
Occupational therapist and death doula Misa Terral teaches a self-designed class she calls Soulpower Dance multiple times a week at Haw Creek Commons in East Asheville. “It incorporates conscious choreography, breath, emotions and voice with spiritual connection and intention,” she tells Xpress. Inspired by SoulSweat, a dance fitness program that emphasizes mindfulness as well as movement, Terral designed SoulPower as “a unique expression of my own personal growth spiritually, mentally and emotionally, as well as my love for dance, music and community.”
Kate Hurley Krause found SoulPower particularly uplifting in the early months of the pandemic, when Terral offered free online classes. “She brings emotional and spiritual wellness into her classes,” Krause tells Xpress.
“SoulPower Dance with Misa is the highlight of my week,” Marissa Domanksi tells Xpress. “Not only do I love the music and choreography, I also love spending time with such a wonderful dance community. I walk out feeling refreshed and happy, and better equipped to flow with the ups and downs of daily life.”