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Its Organizers Say Folkmoot Festival Has Never Been More Relevant

Cory Vaillancourt
The 35th annual Folkmoot Festival runs from July 19-29.

Waynesville’s Folkmoot Festival is again underway.  In its 35th year, organizers say the folkdance festival has never been more relevant - or more necessary.

Folkmoot is North Carolina’s official international folk festival. As it has grown, the gathering has become much more than just a series of cultural dance performances, according to Folkmoot Executive Director Angie Schwab.  “Folkmoot started out as really a folk dance organization,” said Schwab. “The word ‘folkmoot’ means meeting of the people, and as I’ve had a few years in this position I’ve learned that the original term was based on this idea that a community come together and meet their needs above and beyond politics.”

Folkmoot began in the early 1980s when Waynesville physician Clinton Border accompanied an Appalachian clogging group to a folk dance festival in the United Kingdom. When he returned, he gathered a group of his neighbors and told them he wanted to create something similar in Haywood County.  “Dr. Border, the founder of Folkmoot, felt like the Appalachian culture was just as interesting and unique as the cultures he was experiencing in other countries,” she said. “He thought that we should play host to the rest of the world.”

Since then an estimated 10,000 performers from more than 200 nations have graced Western North Carolina stages each July, demonstrating cultural traditions of dance, dress and music. In addition to local Appalachian and Cherokee performers, this year’s guests include groups representing Venezuela, Thailand, Northern Cyprus, Italy, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Jamaica and Ghana.  And when they come, they all stay together in dorm-style housing at the Folkmoot Friendship Center in Waynesville’s Hazelwood neighborhood.  “We’re a 40,000 square-foot historic school. One of our buildings was built in the 1920s and the second one in the 1940s. We have 22 classrooms, a cafeteria, an auditorium,” Schwab said. “We have a lot of space.”

Helping foreign visitors navigate American culture as well as ministering to logistical concerns are about two dozen volunteers, called guides, who also stay at Folkmoot and earn a small stipend.  “It’s just the sharing of cultures that I feel is extremely important,” said Rolf Kaufman, who knew Dr. Border and was at that initial meeting where Folkmoot was born.  Today, Kaufman’s affectionately known as “Mr. Folkmoot” and serves on its board of directors.  “I was born in Germany before the Nazi regime. My family is Jewish and we were being persecuted of course by Hitler and his Nazis,” said Kaufman. “In 1935 it was determined that we better get out of there.”

During his long involvement with Folkmoot, Rolf Kaufman has always seen its potential for both visitors to and residents of Western North Carolina.  “This is a great benefit to the area, and to promote understanding between people of various origins,” he said. “It will send back people to their home countries with an experience that I think will make them friends of ours and friends of our country and never enemies, so it could be a remote contributor to world peace.”

During her four years as executive director of Folkmoot, Angie Schwab has watched its relevance grow.  “In a time when a lot of us are thinking about refugees or multiculturalism or maybe fear of people who are different from us, now is the time for Folkmoot. I’m not sure we’ve ever been as important.”

This year’s Folkmoot festival features 25 events across the region, and winds up at Lake Junaluska July 29.