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Folkmoot's Cultural Exchange Goes Both Ways

Cory Vaillancourt
Folkmoot guides undergo training July 13 in Waynesville

You can’t just invite several hundred foreign performers to a festival in Western North Carolina without showing them some good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.  And that’s just what many local volunteers do each year, serving as a bridge between cultures at Waynesville’s Folkmoot Festival.

“My name is Connor, I’m 20 years old. My name is Heather, I’m 22 years old. My name is Yetunde, I’m 22 years old."  Those are just a few of the two dozen young people working the Folkmoot Festival this summer as liaisons between the 200 or so foreign folk dance performers and the rest of the community.  They’re called guides, and during the 10-day festival, they’ll help the groups get to gigs on time and in costume, as well as arrange for meals or medical care, and also plan for activities on their off days.  “They kind of take each group under their wing and they help them with anything that needs to be done,” says longtime Folkmoot guide Vivian Poppas, who’s been involved with the festival for almost 30 years. “They’ve got a big responsibility. They’re the public face and they’re also a representative of the United States for each group that travels so far to get here.”

Before the groups from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America even arrive in Waynesville, guides undergo five days of training.  Topics include conflict resolution, emergency management and even global politics. That has a lasting effect, according to Folkmoot Executive Director Angie Schwab.  “We work really hard to prepare them, and all of these kids tend to go away from Folkmoot, and they’ve had an international experience and it makes them hungry for more,” said Schwab.

Guides spend every waking moment with their groups, and also share hostel-style room and board with them at the Folkmoot Friendship Center for the duration of the fest.  It’s all a lot of work, says 17 year-old Grace Feichter, an assistant guide in her third year. But that effort has enduring consequences.  “I remember watching the parade as a child and when I was about seven years old, there was a group from Mexico and I was standing on the side of the street with my eyes wide in awe and she asked me if I wanted to dance with her in the street,” she said. “I hope that as an assistant guide, I’m helping other people to have the same experience.”

This year’s Folkmoot Festival continues through July 29.