There’s a saying that if you want to change the world, start in your own backyard. But what if you want to see the world? Usually that requires a journey far beyond the familiar confines of your immediate neighborhood or hometown — unless you happen to live in Waynesville. For 33 years, Folkmoot USA has brought dancers and musicians to this mountain town from around the world. The 2016 edition will feature about 200 artists from countries as far-flung as China, Finland, Poland and Ghana. Parades, performances and dance parties span the two-week festival, in which international troupes share their various cultures while learning about Appalachian sights, sounds and customs.
“They participate in an international band and work on songs together,” says Executive Director Angeline Schwab, who recently moved back to WNC and joined Folkmoot last year. The chock-full schedule, which includes the Many Cultures Kids Carnival, a global issues forum and a number of Asheville-based happenings, runs from Friday, July 22, to Sunday, July 31.
“We have these late-nighter events where people [play] games from their country. They create teams that are sometimes multinational and sometimes one [country] against another,” Schwab continues. “People sing and they dance and they laugh. I kind of think of Folkmoot as a peace circus or an Olympic village of folk dance.”
While the late-night and behind-the-scenes happenings are mostly for the performers, some locals also get to participate. Since its early years, Folkmoot has enlisted a number of guides — usually area college students, many of whom speak multiple languages — to serve as personal assistants to the visiting artists.
“I’ve been going to the festival my entire life. … When I was 14 or 15, I started volunteering,” says Haywood County native Elizabeth Burson. She became a guide at age 16 and was assigned to a group from Ireland. Although she’s no longer a guide, Burson will be working as a staff member once again this year, for the seventh time. “I can’t quite seem to quit Folkmoot,” she jokes.
Burson has worked with troupes from Peru, Thailand, Ecuador, Romania — plus a Canadian group that performed Chinese dances. “I get nervous about [the language barrier] every time,” she says. “The first group I had that didn’t speak any English was Peru, and I cried on the bus ride home.” But through a mashup of English and Spanish, and with help from translation apps, Burson was able to communicate.
Guides meet their groups at the airport and handle everything from the details of performance schedules to free-time activities. “You live in the room with them,” says Burson. The international dancers are housed at the Folkmoot Friendship Center, the former Hazelwood Elementary School in Waynesville. “You’re constantly with this group, so they become like your family. For 10 days, you build a deep bond with these people,” she says.
Fancy footworkThe dancers and musicians bond with one another, too, and friendships and romances sometimes bloom across cultures. “We have so many love stories we can’t count,” says Schwab. She sees those relationships maintained through social media, and the dancers — who are often on a circuit of folk festivals during their touring season — may meet again in other locales.
But the international artists are also curious about Western North Carolina’s culture. One of this year’s new events is Cherokee Ambassadors Day on Tuesday, July 26. During the free program, Cherokee representatives will share their traditions and history with visiting dancers and festivalgoers alike.
Meanwhile, other local musicians and dancers will showcase WNC mountain culture. The J. Creek Cloggers take their cues from The Soco Gap Cloggers — the area’s first dance team, started in the 1930s by the grandfather of state Rep. Joe Sam Queen. “It’s old-style. It’s flatfoot, buck dance and clogging steps,” says J. Creek director Kim Ross. “It’s not precision [the contemporary form of clogging]; it’s more of a freestyle. … But everybody’s still in rhythms with their taps.”
Ross, who grew up in southwest Virginia near the Carter Family Fold, was influenced by flatfoot dancing. When she moved to WNC, she noticed that traditional square dancing and styles like flatfoot and buck dancing — the latter form tracing back to African-American slaves — were dying out. She decided to start a dance team both to preserve that heritage and to educate her sons, whom she was home-schooling. “Now I’m teaching mountain dance classes as a continuing ed course at Haywood Community College,” she says. “Not only the movements, but also the history behind it, so people understand and they won’t forget.”
A former Folkmoot board member, Ross currently handles the hiring of clogging teams and bluegrass and old-time bands. This will be the J. Creek Cloggers’ fourth year performing at the festival; because the dancers prefer live music, Ross booked local artists Darren Nicholson and the Stuart Family Band. The Bailey Mountain Cloggers will represent precision clogging.
Even though there’s not a language barrier for English-speaking spectators watching the clogging teams, there’s still a need for education. “They’ve asked me to speak at a few of the events, so people understand the different styles of steps and the history behind it. People will understand it’s not just some [variant] of Irish Riverdance,” says Ross. “That’s what got me into Folkmoot — they’re trying to bring cultures together and preserve a lot of things. Our traditional mountain-style dance and music fits right in with that.”
Feedback from festivalgoers has indicated a desire not just to learn about other cultures but to actively participate. “What we heard the community say was that it was important for them to not just sit in seats the whole time,” says Schwab. Accordingly, Folkmoot has added three parades and dance lessons at several events.
One of the parades will take place in Asheville. There’ll also be performances at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre (Wednesday, July 27) and the Diana Wortham Theatre (Friday, July 29) and a dance party at The Orange Peel, DJed by Oso Rey (Saturday, July 30).
“There are a lot of Spanish-speaking and Asian families near Asheville,” says Schwab. “We were asked to do more in Asheville [because] the 20- to 30-minute drive to Haywood County felt like a geographic barrier.” Schwab herself grew up in East Asheville.
The Orange Peel event will offer a unique opportunity to mingle — the 200 international performers will be on the floor, boogying alongside Folkmoot attendees. “I’m trying to pull music from a bunch of different places rather than being a producer/DJ with a specific sound and a specific scene,” says Rey. His background includes performing with Soulgrass Rebellion and Debrissa and the Bear King, as well as producing music and creating visual art. A longtime fan of reggae and Afro-pop, “Now I’m going deep into cumbia and all these other styles, just trying to cover the globe,” he says.
There’ll be nods to sounds from each of the 10 countries represented at this year’s Folkmoot. Rey says he asked every dance troupe for a favorite song or two. “I have a bunch of samples from different places, and I’m looking more for similarities within as opposed to [being] specific to their scenes,” he says.
That kind of sonic melding promises an eclectic soundtrack. “The one thing that will tie it together is rhythm,” says Rey. You can hear “a basic hip-hop beat in djembe players from Africa, and you may hear it from [Japanese] taiko players. I think there are certain truths in music — at the end of the day, that’s what I’m going for.”
Folkmoot recently received a $30,000 grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and the affiliated Fund for Haywood County. And last year, the festival launched a $1.2 million campaign to restore the Friendship Center, increase the endowment and expand programming.
Other efforts are on the horizon as well. Because LEAF and Folkmoot have complementary programming, Schwab hopes the two organizations can collaborate in the future. “People in the community and on the Folkmoot board were feeling like it was a mistake for us to not have activities throughout the year,” she says. “[We’re] providing an American experience for international people who are visiting, but also creating an international experience for the community that surrounds us.”