The feet of nations

Attending Folkmoot USA is like getting to tour the globe without fear of jet lag or parasitic giardia.

It’s like Walt Disney’s dream for the “It’s a Small World” theme ride — only with way more authenticity.

Now in its 21st season, Folkmoot — the Waynesville-based international-dance event — is still striving to bring the world’s best home to Western North Carolina.

“We try to really work toward having diversity in [the groups we choose from] different parts of the world — different ethnic groups, different types of costumes,” explains Jackie Bolden, Folkmoot’s executive director.

Indeed, the event’s opening parade and subsequent shows are a visual feast of folkloric dress, music and, of course, traditional dance.

Interestingly enough, although it’s often more difficult for many of these international groups to travel to America than it would be for dance companies from our country to go abroad, there’s still a notable shortage of U.S. groups participating in international dance festivals like Folkmoot.

“We have international [festivals] begging for American groups,” reveals Bolden. “American groups don’t tend to travel and participate in international [dance] festivals.”

The Chapel Hill-based Apple Chill Cloggers are an exception to that general rule, performing their fancy footwork and upbeat Southern Appalachian music worldwide, traveling to festivals from Peru to Switzerland.

“I guess it’s unusual, but it’s a lot of fun,” remarks Debbie Powell, a 20-year group veteran. “Each festival is unique, because each country is unique.”

This year, the Apple Chill Cloggers will pack one more international folk-dance festival under their belts — and this one is only a couple of hours from their piedmont home. They’ll make an appearance at the first half of Folkmoot, a two-week-long event that hosts shows in six mountain counties.

Folkmoot was started, appropriately, by a clogging team. After a Waynesville-based group had traveled to Europe to perform at a festival, one of its members, a local surgeon, decided to bring the intercultural activity back to his own hometown.

“He felt like such a festival would be welcomed here,” explains Bolden, “because people here appreciate traditional art forms.”

So, in 1984 the first Folkmoot — an Old English word meaning “meeting of the people” — hit the streets of Waynesville, colors bright and feet a-flying.

However, participating dance groups have to pay their own airfare to such events — a considerable hindrance for many. And even though current events seem to bring our various cultures closer every day, it isn’t exactly in a “We are the World” sort of way; thus for many foreign groups, obtaining visas to the U.S. is a major obstacle, if not an outright impossibility.

This obviously presents an ongoing logistical challenge for Folkmoot planners as they select the groups they’d like to see participate — and then have to balance their desires against the reality of who can actually make the trip.

“We invite some groups — Spanish, Italian, French — who we know can get in,” Bolden reveals. “But we also invite groups from Togo or Asian countries.”

Last year, local company Bonesteel Films made the documentary Folkmoot USA, ducking behind the scenes and following participants as they got to know one other.

There were French stilt dancers, Russian acrobats, drummers from Tahiti and athletic performers from Mexico. And the differences between these people — thrown together for two weeks, sharing quarters in a Waynesville junior-high school — couldn’t have been more striking. Yet on the last night, the groups stayed up together, sharing dances, exchanging addresses and sometimes crying as they parted ways.

“Folk dancers do this for the love of dancing, sharing culture and the joy of watching the other groups,” says clogger Powell. “Some people I’ve met at International shows, we still correspond. Sometimes, we make lasting friendships.”

The 21st Annual Folkmoot USA officially opens at 1 p.m. Friday, July 16, along Main Street in Waynesville, with a free Parade of Nations. The official grand-opening performance happens the same day, at 7:30 p.m. at The Stompin’ Ground in Maggie Valley ($15 and $20). The dancers will perform in Asheville at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on both Saturday, July 17 and Sunday, July 18 ($15 and $20). For information on additional Folkmoot performances in Clyde, Maggie Valley, Lake Junaluska, Flat Rock, Hendersonville, Waynesville, Canton, Cullowhee, Bryson City and Franklin, see, or call (828) 452-2997, or toll free at (877) FOLK-USA.

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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