Spin City

Kathleen Hahn. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Kathleen Hahn. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Neo-burlesque shows and vintage-chic letterpress art have been hot for a decade.

Vaudeville-esque aerialist troupes are taking back the notion of “circus,” focusing on gravity-taunting human feats instead of controversial animal acts. And now the dance marathon is having its own new day, popping up strong along the retro-arts continuum.

Backed by financial sponsors, lone dancers or groups deploy their moves until they drop, typically a 12-hour period. It’s a broadly appealing kind of fundraiser — clean fun with a sliver of edge. (Who’s best? And, more importantly, who will last?) Across the country, dance-a-thons are being thrown to benefit schools, fire stations, environmental nonprofits and charitable endeavors.

Asheville’s first post-millennial dance-a-thon on February 4 will promote the programs of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, which preserves the legacy of the eponymous, avant-garde institution via exhibitions and live entertainment. Centered east of Asheville from 1933 to 1957, the experimental school, despite its brief reign, turned out a profoundly influential roster of inventors, artists and philosophers. Associated names include geodesic-dome inventor Buckminster Fuller, musical theorist John Cage, poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, painter Willem de Kooning, modern-dance master Merce Cunningham and revolutionary art educators Josef and Anni Albers.

Last year, BMCM+AC staged a series of “{Re}Happenings,” progressive multimedia events fashioned after Cage’s inventive work. The Asheville Dance-a-Thon is more traditional and thus more inclusive, offering instruction and performances in no less than 20 genres — everything from breakdancing to Bollywood, Capoeira to clogging, salsa to waltz.

Center director Alice Sebrell, working with local choreographer Kathleen Hahn, expresses wonder at Asheville’s diverse dance community. “It’s huge,” she says. “Really amazing.” The event’s fit with the BMCM+AC mission has a historic component: Sebrell says that Saturday-night dance celebrations, complete with costumes and, not surprisingly, top-tier musicianship, were integral to the cultural life of Black Mountain College students. “Everyone always looked forward to Saturday night — it was a time to let go of all of the academic pressure.”

The original arc of American dance marathons roughly mirrors the lifespan of the college itself. They started in the 1920s as a delirious spinoff of Jazz Age excess, but during the Depression years, such contests acquired a shadow side: cash-strapped entrants sweated more for prize money than for bragging rights. By the ’50s, dance marathons were again relatively innocuous, largely governed by middle-class teens in bobby socks.

Similarly, while always advancing its open interdisciplinary approach, Black Mountain College was not immune to the sea changes of the times, reflecting the pinnacle of intellectualism — Albert Einstein taught there — as well as the fringes of pop culture: an enduring connection between BMC and Beat poets is still hashed out in national literary symposiums.

Continually exploring the cultural impact of his own genre, well-known breakdancing performer and instructor Joe H. Adams will be one of the featured leaders at the Asheville event. He’s credited with sparking a local resurgence of the street-dance form starting about 10 years ago; however, he likes to point out that “breakdancing never really went away. It just went around the world.” It’s especially popular, he says, in impoverished third-world countries — Uganda, for example, boasts a major scene.

“You don’t need any money to do it,” explains Adams. You do, however, have to be in absolute peak physical condition to execute the moves, including, among many others, potentially dangerous headspins and gymnastic “flares.”

Introduced in the late 1970s, breakdancing (aka “b-boy” or “b-girl”-ing) sprung from hip-hop culture.

Adams also talks about being in top “mental and emotional shape” to compete. Practitioners bring no special equipment, only themselves and whatever aspects of their background they wish to infuse into the dance narrative.

“It’s open to all cultures, all genres of art,” says Adams. “You can be from anywhere, take inspiration from anywhere, and do something new with it. But it’s also about elevating yourself, pushing yourself to be your best.

“In my opinion, it’s the most progressive art form on the planet.”

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