In step

When one thinks of the West, various iconic images come to mind — deer and antelope cavorting, ten-gallon hats, country line dancing, Wrangler jeans — though certainly not kilts or Canadians. But at least two groups performing at Waynesville’s international-dance festival Folkmoot aim to take back pearl buttons.

Folkmoot Canada

“The wide-open spaces of the West, its cowboys and country music, have inspired today’s Franco Albertans [French-Canadians living in the prairie-filled Alberta province] to incorporate a Western feel to the traditional dances brought by settlers from Quebec,” explains the program of Canadian folk-dance troupe Zephyr. Their piece “West Jig” is performed not in the blousey tops and baggy skirts associated with folk dance, but in Western shirts and jeans, a la old- and new-school country-rock bands, and cowpokes.

Because our Canadian neighbors share a border with the U.S., they also share a history — and to see some of Zephyr’s dances is to see how the U.S. impacted the development of another nation. At the same time, we can learn a bit about our own past by watching the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society branch of Newcastle, England — a group that performs Scottish Highland dances ancestral to many Scots-Irish-descended Western North Carolinians.

Folkmoot England

Folkmoot groups from Canada (top of article), and England (above and below) reflect aspects of our Irish-American and mountain dance traditions. Except they’re quieter than us.

Other than an indirect connection to United States heritage, the Scottish Country Dance Society and Zephyr share another commonality: step dancing. However, much like the concept of Canadian cowboys, these traditional forms of step dance — relatives to WNC’s clogging — aren’t what might immediately come to mind; namely, they aren’t infected by Michael Flatley-style dramatics.

“Clogging and some Irish step are hard-shoe, percussive forms of dance, whereas ours is social [as opposed to solo], done in soft shoes, hopefully without any noise,” explains Country Dance Society spokesman David Hind.

He goes on to describe his group’s moves as “American square dancing without the caller, the cowboy boots, and done in ballet shoes … and in some of our displays we wear the Scottish form of evening dress.” Read: kilts.

Isabelle Laurin, artistic director of Zephyr, describes the development of the French-Canadian style. “In the 19th century, in the lumberjack’s camp, the French and the Irish were very close because of their religion and their social lifestyle,” she imparts. “This relationship allowed them to share other aspects of their culture, such as their music and dances. Because the French lumberjacks were without female dance partners to execute their traditional dances, they rapidly learned some steps from the Irish, which were executed individually by the Irish men.

Folkmoot wedding

“[Our] style,” she affirms, “is very grounded, as opposed to the competitive form of modern Irish step dance, which is higher off the ground and more extravagant.”

Unlike Folkmoot groups from China, Gabon and Thailand whose performances will seem highly exotic to an American audience, the festival’s Canadian and U.K. dancers move in familiar rhythms.

“Many of us have been to the USA — but few of us have danced there, and none so far have been to North Carolina and the Appalachians,” says Hind. “[Folkmoot] is in fact based on our own Tyne & Wear County Folkmoot [alas no longer held], in which many of our group used to take part.”

Both groups will also be offering workshops to dance enthusiasts. Says Hind: “You don’t need to wear a kilt, just bring some [gym shoes] and a sense of humor.”

Keeping it simple is one way the dance groups hope to attract new members. “It’s very difficult to get young people to do folk dancing in the U.K.,” remarks Hind. “Particularly young men — maybe they don’t like the idea of wearing a kilt. Ironically, in countries such as Germany and Hungary, Scottish country dancing is thriving among young people.”

Laurin agrees. “Of course, it is difficult to attract young people to traditional folk dance. However … our young dancers develop a greater appreciation for [it].”

Case in point: Look for Zephyr’s step dance-meets-hip-hop number “Deux Epoques” at Folkmoot. It means “two eras.”

Folkmoot USA happens Monday, July 17 through Sunday, July 30 in UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium and elsewhere in eight WNC counties. See below for a schedule of events. See or call (877) 365-5872 for information.

2006 Festival Schedule

This schedule is subject to change. Check for updates, additions or cancellations.

July 17, 7:30 p.m.
Three groups, East Junior High School in Marion, $12/adult, children 12 and under half-price
Three groups, Swain High School, Bryson City, $12/adult, children 12 and under half-price

July 18, 7:30 p.m.
Three groups, Colonial Theatre in Canton, $12/adult, children 12 and under half-price
Three groups, Stecoah Valley Center in Stecoah, $12/adult, children 12 and under half-price

July 19, 11 a.m.
Hazelwood Village program, 2 groups perform, FREE event

July 19, 1 p.m.
Children’s Program, 1 group at Hazelwood Elementary School, FREE event

July 19, 7:30 p.m.
Three groups, Martin Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands, $15/adult, children 12 and under half-price
Three groups, Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville, $15/adult, children 12 and under half-price

July 20, 7:30 p.m.
Gala Prevue featuring all groups, Eaglenest Entertainment in Maggie Valley, private performance for Donors/Friends of the festival

July 21, 1 p.m.
Parade of Nations, Main Street in Waynesville, all groups, FREE event

July 21, 7:30 p.m.
Grand Opening featuring all groups, Stompin’ Ground in Maggie Valley, $25 & $20 reserved, $15/general admission, children 12 & under half-price

July 22, 8 a.m.
Folkmoot 5K Race, co-sponsored by Waynesville Parks & Recreation Dept. begins and ends at Folkmoot Friendship Center, $15/advance registration, $17/day of race registration, includes T-shirt

July 22, 7:30 p.m.
World Celebration with all groups, UNCA Lipinsky Auditorium in Asheville, $20/reserved, $15/general admission, children 12 & under half-price

July 23, 2:30 p.m.
WNC World Tour with all groups, UNCA Lipinsky Auditorium in Asheville, $20/reserved, $15/general admission, children 12 & under half-price

July 23, 7 p.m.
World Friendship Sunday with all groups, Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska, $20/reserved, $15/general admission, children 12 & under half-price

July 24, 1 p.m.
Children’s program, Meadowbrook Elementary, 1 group, FREE event

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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