Michelle McConnell Yelton was perhaps a little young when she saw the mildly bawdy Dirty Dancing for the first time. But she was a dancer, and when she and her girlfriends traveled for cheerleading competitions, the movie became a ritual watch.
Years later, her relocation from California to Lake Lure formed a romantic plot all its own. “I left LA in December 2005 and took a quick project in DC before reconnecting with my college crush, whom I married four months later,” she says. “He [Michael Yelton] was from Rutherfordton and living in Lake Lure, which sounded great to me.”
Key parts of the 1987 movie — a low-budget flick turned huge hit turned cult classic — were made in and around Lake Lure, including an iconic scene between leads Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Working-class “Johnny” lifts doctor’s daughter “Baby” over his head in a risky dance move they practice in the water.
Three years after Yelton arrived in Lake Lure, Swayze died of pancreatic cancer. She recalls “a flood of media requests and individual inquiries that came to the town and visitor center.” A last-minute candlelight vigil was organized, and more than 700 people attended — in the rain. A year later, in 2010, Yelton debuted The Dirty Dancing Festival.
Like the movie, the festival enjoyed a swift success. A few major differences have occurred with this year’s event, though: it will be under all-local production for the first time. Yelton and a friend from Los Angeles produced the first festival, and then Yelton backed away, leaving someone 3,000 miles away to coordinate.
Now, the Chamber of Hickory Nut Gorge has taken over the festival, helping to rally local support. “It’s brought out a lot of people in the community who want to volunteer just because it feels more homegrown now,” says Yelton, who produced many events during her own time in California.
Another spark has been the revival of the plot via a TV-musical remake slated to air on ABC, starring celebrated child actress Abigail Breslin (now 20) and Broadway dancer Colt Prattes. Some of the filming for the projected three-hour production happened earlier this summer in various places across Western North Carolina, and star sightings at local haunts were commonplace. These included Jennifer Lopez, in town to support her boyfriend, Beau “Casper” Smart, who appears in the film (the couple was spotted at Kilwin’s fudge shop on Main Street in Hendersonville).
“The remake has definitely hyped up the conversation about Dirty Dancing,” notes Yelton.
On Saturday, the festival will host its normal schedule of dance lessons, watermelon games, crafts and vendors, and the lake-lift competition — that challenging move that formed a central motif in the original movie. Asheville Ballet Company will also perform.
But the Friday-night outdoor showing of the 1987 movie at Morse Park Meadow tends to be the biggest attraction. The film has become an interactive experience — perhaps not on the level of something like Rocky Horror Picture Show. But fans do cheer when Swayze first walks on stage — and then celebrate at the end.
“We’ve had attendees from more than 24 states and two foreign countries — lots come from the UK and Germany, and it’s like that every year,” says Yelton. “It isn’t something that people are getting tired of.”
The Dirty Dancing Festival happens August 19 and 20 in Lake Lure. For ticket details, see dirtydancingfestival.com.