Dancing on water

Arms and fingers articulate unfamiliar body languages. Feet beat unusual rhythms. A kaleidoscope of exotic colors swirls to strange and wondrous music. It’s Folkmoot, the world-famous two-week international dance festival — and the world is coming to your doorstep.

The first public performance of the 17th annual Folkmoot USA happens on Monday, July 17 at UNCA. And 13 more days and nights of magic will follow, in no less than eight mountain counties.

“Folkmoot,” by the way, is Old English for “meeting of the people.” For Americans in the audience, this on-stage cultural exchange is fast and fascinating.

And for those fortunate enough to work behind the scenes, it’s unforgettable.

Folkmoot USA is the extra spice in the already-brimming melting pot of Western North Carolina’s folk-dance culture. In fact, it’s the largest international folk-dance festival that comes to this country, but like the distant cousin who gets lost in the shadow of the hometown hero, Folkmoot barely creates a ripple locally.

“They know us better in Paris than they do in Asheville!” exclaims Jackie Bolden, the event’s executive director.

This year, more than 350 dancers and musicians from 10 to12 countries will perform. Since the festival began in 1983, more than 160 folk groups from 75 countries have taken part — truly a United Nations of dance. Past attendees remember the annual “Candlelight Closing” (scheduled this year for July 30, at Lake Junaluska) with the same kind of emotional tug as others do the closing Olympic spectacles. And though it can’t boast even a fraction of the budget, Folkmoot USA requires about as much logistical skill and diplomacy as setting up a Hollywood location shoot.

And it’s all done by just one staff person (plus, of course, hundreds of volunteers).

Moreover, the international dance groups that grace this festival do a lot of fancy footwork just to get here. Each group pays its own costs, first securing a visa from the U.S. embassy in its home country. “It’s almost impossible to get all the required paperwork done,” says Bolden, “especially in Asia and Africa. It’s a measure of how important the festival is for them [that they] go through so much trouble to get here.” One note from the trenches: The festival has tried for four years to get representation from Sierra Leone — but revolutions, economic crises, politics and just plain bureaucratic red tape have so far prevented these dancers from participating.

“Maybe this year,” Bolden says, adding, “I hope.”

There’s no hope for Nepal, however. The eagerly anticipated group from this country gave it a valiant try, but the novice United States consul handed back a quick and unequivocal “No.” The Nepalese dance troupe, it seems, presented a high risk of “nonimmigrant overstays,” as the Immigration and Naturalization Service calls them.

“You’d think the State Department would give a festival like ours special courtesy,” laments Bolden, “but they don’t.”

How realistic are Big Brother’s concerns? Of the 5,000-plus foreign participants since the festival began, Bolden reports, “Everyone’s gone home as promised.” (Not all of them have stayed put, however: “A few years ago, one gal from Romania did depart — but came back later to marry a young man she’d met at the festival,” the director reveals.)

Once the participants actually get to the U.S. port of entry, Folkmoot USA takes care of everything else. For foreigners, the long bus trip to the mountains is quite a shocker.

“They are surprised at how big everything is, how big the bus is, how big the country is, how big Western North Carolina is. Everything big! … One of the Eastern European dance groups insisted we had put out a display at the supermarket just for them, to misrepresent how many choices American consumers have. We had to take them to two other markets to show them it’s like this everywhere here!”

During the epic event, Waynesville Middle School is turned into a mountain hostel where performers stay in dormitory-style rooms. “Influenced by Dallas reruns,” Bolden admits, “they are at first disappointed with their Spartan accommodations.”

But the unpalatial quarters are quickly eclipsed by one of the festival’s main attractions for the performers — the food. Unlike most dance festivals, Folkmoot USA provides free meals for participants — a whopping four per day — and a seemingly endless supply of American soda. That comes to around 1,700 meals a day, all served by volunteers in the school cafeteria — “good, down-home American food,” says Bolden.

“Of course, we also provide hot sauce, chili peppers and soy sauce — and lots of rice!” she adds. Although some of the dancers are experienced travelers, most are still stunned by the depth and extent of a Southern-style welcome.

“They are amazed, just amazed, at the warmth and friendliness of Americans,” Bolden relates. “Remember, most foreigners know Americans only from movies and TV — and the embassies — so they don’t really know us until they meet us on our home turf. The festival gives us a chance to share with the world one of the greatest aspects of our heritage — our hospitality.”

The dancers’ comments might be heard in Arabic, French, Greek, Hebrew, Irish Gaelic, Spanish — even Azerbaijani. But each group comes with its own translator, and the festival also provides American guides from the local community, who live with the groups 24 hours a day during their stay. For these guides, Folkmoot becomes the experience of a lifetime. Last year Vivian Poppas took a break from her three grandchildren to keep the Malaysian team company.

“I was a mother hen,” Poppas says with a laugh. “Their English was excellent, but I spoke sign language a lot!” She remembers it all fondly: “Amazing energy they have, incredible — dancing and singing all the time. You get hooked. Once you get involved, you want to come back year after year.”

Twenty-one-year-old Case Brown is now in his fifth year of working as a group guide. “In the past I’ve been with Brazil, New Zealand, Monaco and Italy. I was surprised to find out how diverse every country is. The people are not a monotonous whole. There are factions and divisions in every country,” he notes.

“The most contradictory thing in the world,” Brown concludes, “is to get so close to people for two weeks — and [then] they just leave. You feel so empty when they leave. It rips your heart out.”

This year’s Folkmoot USA will feature roughly 12 international dance troupes giving dozens of performances through Sunday, July 30. The events, in various locales around WNC, range from free shows to gala, all-group extravaganzas ($13-$16). The first event, “On the Quad,” takes place at UNCA on Monday, July 17. The official opening ceremony is Friday, July 21 at Maggie Valley’s Stompin’ Ground (7:30 p.m.). A 1 p.m. Parade of Nations marches down Waynesville’s Main Street that same day.

Tickets and info are available by calling (877) 365-5872, or visit Folkmoot USA’s Web site (www.folkmoot.com).

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