Allentown Freak Out Dance Festival

By Frederick Jerant

“HUR-ry, HUR-ry, HUR-ry, ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages! Step right this way and see the most a-STOUND-ing collection of exotic performers between Aquashicola and Kalamazoo! See belly-dancers…fire-eaters…sword-swallowers…and more! Much, MUCH more, ladies and gentlemen…”

Sounds like an old-time barker for a circus sideshow, doesn’t it?  Well, that’s the kind of spirit behind the Allentown Freak-Out – a free outdoor festival that celebrates unusual performers, now in its fourth year. It runs June 21-22, and is produced by co-founders Matt Lewis and his wife, Sarah Fulton.

“Most festivals around here are about what you’d expect, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Lewis says. “But we thought there was room for one that was a little gritty, something that would reflect Allentown’s persona. Sarah and I had been to fringe festivals in other places – including one in Jim Thorpe – and we thought the concept would be perfect for Allentown.”

Despite its slightly-ominous name, the Freak-Out is really an all-ages venture.

“It’s mainly family-friendly,” Lewis says. “We do have some acts that are better suited for adults, but those are displayed indoors. And even those would be rated PG-13. There’s nothing really crazy.”

Past patrons have encountered dancers that perform complex routines on a 4’ x 4’ stage; the West Philadelphia Orchestra (klezmer songs and music of Serbia and Macedonia); glass eaters; psychedelic bluegrass music; and Allentown’s own Burning Hearts Fire and Light Theater (profiled in the last issue of Lehigh Valley Marketplace).

“Other than music, what performing arts can people see up-close and live? Not many. I think people forget how much fun a live act can be,” he says.

Given the outré nature of the Freak-Out’s acts, one must ask – how does he find them? “Sometimes word-of-mouth,” Lewis says, “and sometimes web searching. “We generally start with ideas about the kinds of talent we want, and then look for appropriate performers.”

Lewis stresses that the search concentrates on home-grown acts. “Last year, all of our performers came from eastern Pennsylvania,” Lewis points out, “and most were from the Valley. People were really surprised to see how much diverse talent we have around here.”

As word of the AFO has spread, some performers have approached the festival about performing. Some are accepted; some are not. “We’ve never had a ‘cattle call,’ and we’ve never worked with a talent agency. We save a nice bit of money that way,” Lewis says.

Getting the offbeat venture off the ground was the couple’s first challenge, and Lewis credits the city with guiding them over some of the hurdles. “From the beginning, city staffers were interested in our ideas and wanted to help. They offered insights on how to set up a festival, helped us promote it, even waived some permit fees for the first year,” Lewis says.

Other local groups joined in – the Community Action Development Corporation of Allentown acts as the festival’s financial conduit, and the Allentown Economic Development Corporation provides performance space near Ninth and Hamilton, affectionately known as the “Electric Green.” (All other venues are within easy walking distance.)

The Allentown Brew Works, another performance venue, has been a supporter from the start. “The owners thought the festival would be good for business, and the first year brought in even more customers than they’d anticipated. They’ve been behind us ever since,” he says.

Lewis adds that, on at least one occasion, a bridal party left the Brew Works to get in on the fun. “It was a great juxtaposition,” he recalls. “An elegant bride and her entourage, watching a trick roper at a sideshow.”

The FUSE art infrastructure is another long-term partner, providing free-standing displays of contemporary art, often outside the traditional forms of painting and sculpture.

The Freak-Out is self-funded, and its money-raising effort is a year-‘round affair. “We hosted our second annual St. Patrick’s Day party at the Brew Works on March 16,” he says. It featured a mix of prizes, giveaways, contests, music, dancing and visual arts.

Lewis and Fulton are always on the lookout for individuals and businesses to buy ad space in the “order of events” program, sponsor performance stages, or provide in-kind donations.

But don’t think the show-runners are getting rich. “The money covers renting stages, sound systems and similar equipment,” Lewis says. “Most performers are willing to volunteer, but if we raise enough money we try to pay everyone something.”

And speaking of the acts…here’s a partial run-down of this year’s roster (subject to change, of course):

• Harley Newman, “professional lunatic:” Feats of endurance, “impossible” escapes and much more.

• Burning Hearts Fire and Light Theater: Choreographed manipulation of flaming poles, hoops and other devices.

• Polekatz: Non-erotic pole dancing, stressing strength, grace and body control.

• ManDudeBro: A four-man comedy troupe, specializing in long-form improv.

•  The Freak-Out Drive-In: featuring the original “Little Shop of Horrors” with Jack Nicholson. The complete package…except for the cars!

• “Miss Freak-Out” pageant: open to all, it’s a tongue-in-cheek beauty pageant/talent show, more or less (and sometimes less is more).

The Freak-Out really is fun for all ages. “It’s impossible to describe the vibe,” Lewis says. “We draw families with kids, rockers, punks and teenagers. Everyone is surprised by the variety of acts, and the experience of interacting with the performers and with each other. And even though we draw about 1500 people we’ve never had an incident. It’s just a lot of people, having a lot of fun.”

For more information about the Allentown Freak-Out (schedule, pageant registration, sponsorship opportunities), visit

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