Thinking globally, dancing locally

What do a Norwegian offshore-oil-rig worker, a Hawaiian college student, a Sardinian surveyor and a former Utah beauty-pageant queen have in common?

A passion for folk dancing, of course. These dancers — and about 350 other dancers and musicians from across the world — have put aside their day jobs to travel to Waynesville to take part in this year’s edition of the North Carolina International Folk Festival, a.k.a. Folkmoot USA.

For two weeks, the foreign dance troupes will entertain crowds at about 60 performances and events held throughout Western North Carolina, ranging from auditorium shows to nursing-home gigs to a free, full-fledged street festival in downtown Waynesville. The affairs serve up traditional costumes, dance steps and music, with each troupe typically strutting its stuff for eight minutes at a stretch.

“Just because it changes so rapidly — it’s so fast-paced — I think that’s what [audiences] enjoy the most,” suggests Folkmoot Executive Director Jackie Bolden.

The format for the long-running festival has apparently clicked with fans, especially devotees who travel from all over this country to catch the extravaganza.

Dance as salvation

Some cultures have had to fight just to stay alive. The Sardinian dance troupe’s very name — Su Masu — is itself a platform for preserving the dancers’ ancient culture and traditions, group member Sandra Ligas reports via e-mail.

Sardinia is one of Italy’s largest islands, nestled among Italy, Spain, France and Africa in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea — which helps to explain why the island has had to endure so many invasions over the years. And even though Sardinia is now part of Italy, its traditions are distinct.

“Spanish domination is one of the most important that Sardinia had to bear,” writes Ligas. “It lasted four centuries and still now we can see Spanish influence in Sardinian language (we speak a native language beside[s] Italian), religious traditions, culture, food and so on.”

Before the Spanish occupation, the name of the dancers’ small town was Su Masu — but the Spanish people changed the Sardinian article “su” to the Spanish “el,” and the town’s name became El Mas, and finally Elmas. When founding the dance troupe back in 1975, however, members found inspiration in their town’s original name.

Sardinian dances fall into two main groups: ritual dances and dances of courtship, notes Ligas. Ritual dances (performed in a rotating circle) were preserved as such through Christian times up to the 16th century, she explains. Courtship dances, usually reserved for couples, can also be performed by a man and two women.

The dancers — attired in the rich hues of their traditional dress — also sing in a polyphonic choir.

“Scholars and musicologists maintain that Sardinian singing is similar to modal Gregorian chant, and almost sixty percent of Sardinian music is in fact based on Gregorian culture,” writes Ligas. “It also recalls the Spanish and Arabic styles. The solo songs show traces of Spanish influence in the voice pitch and abrupt descending tones, that are well suited to be accompanied with flamenco type chords on the guitar.”

Along with the 20 dancers/singers, four musicians will make the trek from Elmas to Waynesville. The musicians play several instruments: the diatonic organ, guitar, tambourine, sulittu (a short flute made from a palustrine cane) and launeddas (which dates back to 2000 B.C.)

“[Launeddas] are made by three palustrine canes that give a polyphonic sound which plays continually as in the bagpipes,” explains Ligas. “But launeddas have no bag, and the launeddas player finds his air reserve only in his mouth.”

Many of the performers (ages 17 to 40) have never been to the United States before, she reveals.

Pieces of Norway

Since Norwegian dance leader Odd Vegar Ualand was off working on an oil rig in the North Sea when I checked in, fellow dancer Oyvind Larsen filled me in on their group, called Gjesdalringen. The troupe is named for the municipality of Gjesdal (where it was founded); the “ringen” refers to their habit of dancing in a big ring.

Ten Norwegian dancers will perform at this year’s Folkmoot, attired in their national costumes (reflecting the style and embroidery favored in the southwestern part of the country), notes Larsen. By turns quick and slow, dancers (paired off in couples) will perform a number of Norwegian folk dances — including the Trimannsreel, Snuspolka and Gammel reinlender.

The visit marks the 27-year-old group’s 32nd foreign trip — including stops in Brazil, Iraq and Russia — though it’s their first visit to the U.S.

“Always when we go abroad, our main wishes are to meet new people with different culture, religion, politics, etc. — and in addition we of course look forward to meet[ing] other dancing friends from other countries,” writes Larsen.

That’s a fitting sentiment for Folkmoot, which was conceived as a “friendship festival” rather than a dance competition. (Since folk dancing reflects a group’s heritage, organizers don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to judge one as better than another.)

Unfortunately, anxiety over current world tensions have kept more than half of the Gjesdalringen’s customary number of touring members at home.

“But we are confident that we will be able to show the people in North Carolina some Norwegian folklore anyway,” adds Larsen.

From BYU to ipu

Although dancers Joseph and Marlise Ahuna hail from the United States (Hawaii and Utah, respectively), they hope their Polynesian-dance performances will spread appreciation of a culture that’s little known in this part of the country.

Together, the recently married couple perform ancient and contemporary hulas of Hawaii, using the “ipu” (gourd), “puili” (bamboo sticks) and “uli uli” (feather gourd). They also sing and dance graceful contemporary hulas to the melodic songs of Hawaii. In addition, they will perform songs and dances of the Maori people of New Zealand (traditionally known as the “Land of the Long White Cloud”).

Joseph, in fact, lays claim to being the only person in the world who can perform both the Samoan fire-knife dance and the Navajo 22-hoop dance. In the fire-knife dance, he spins flaming knives around his body, legs, arms and neck, tosses a knife into the air and catches it behind his back and legs — all to the fast-paced rhythm of pounding Polynesian drums.

In the intricate Navajo 22-hoop dance, Joseph — dancing to the beat of Indian drums — weaves the hoops between his legs and arms, creating shapes that include the flower, bee, butterfly, snake, bird, world, moon and eagle.

Joseph (a native of Hawaii) and Marlise (a Californian named Miss Utah Valley in 2001) met while studying at Brigham Young University, where they performed Polynesian dances with a multicultural student group. Marlise graduated from BYU last December; the couple married that same month, and Joseph will wrap up his studies this December.

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