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Wednesday, 22 March 2017 15:01

Folkmoot’s Cultural Conversations: One big circle

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Arriving in Waynesville shortly before last year’s Folkmoot Friendship Festival, I like many who’d come before me had no idea what it was.

That quickly changed, as some of my first assignments for The Smoky Mountain News consisted of covering the performances for the fest, which began in 1983 and has since then has drawn more than 200 international folk dance groups from more than 100 nations to Western North Carolina. 

Also like many, I didn’t realize that there’s more to Folkmoot than just dancing. 

In the very first sentence of Folkmoot’s Purpose Statement, it says the organization is to encourage “the vibrancy of many cultures into one community.” Its values include finding strength in diversity and recognizing the importance of cultural exchanges “to create peace, prosperity and understanding.”

Certainly, the 10-day festival does much in the way of achieving these goals, but a pioneering new Folkmoot program called Cultural Conversations represents a more enduring effort to help Western North Carolinians heed the timeless square dance call to “all join hands in one big circle.”

 

‘Stop dancing and let’s talk’

Folkmoot’s Cultural Conversations program stems from a 2016 luncheon that was conducted by Angela Dove during which dancers and directors from the festival’s international touring groups met at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville and explained their cultures to the public.

“I got to ask them questions, and I want to say it was really brave of those folks because they didn’t know what they were getting into,” Dove said. “There’s a lot of trust that has to come with that.”

Participants talked about social and cultural aspects of their societies, like how a death is commemorated or the status of educational access for women.

“We were really saying, ‘Stop dancing and let’s talk about what you have experienced in your culture, because those of us sitting here at these roundtables don’t know what that walk is like.’”

As soon as Dove and Folkmoot Executive Director Angie Schwab realized the benefit of the event, they began planning what would become Cultural Conversations, which will again be facilitated by Dove.  

“We’re basing this on a curriculum that came out of Jacksonville, Florida, in the mid-’90s where some bad racial events happened,” Dove said. “I don’t know specifics about that, but what we wanted to do was take that curriculum and modify it for Western North Carolina. What we kept was this idea that you put 12 to 15 people in a circle in a room. Those people are from different backgrounds and have different identities, and how they define themselves, and what groups they align themselves with.”

Over the course of the next five weeks, I’ll be part of that circle, in that room. My schedule says each session will last about two hours. 

The sessions aren’t open to the public, nor will they be recorded or broadcast. 

And while I’m not there to give The Smoky Mountain News readers the blow-by-blow or direct quotations from participants — for to do so might inhibit a healthy dialogue — I will continue to offer a weekly analysis of each session to demonstrate what I hope will be a productive and beneficial exchange. 

Dove told me that in the first session we’d be looking inward, before looking outward. 

“The foundation of this process is starting out with, ‘Who am I? How do I define myself?’” she said. 

“On an individual level, what’s happening to each of those participants in that circle is that they’re getting the opportunity to really look at how they take in what happens to them, how we perceive any set of data, how we filter that based on our own heritage or our own assumptions.”

Logically this leads to the concept of bias. 

“For me, that’s worth it right there,” she said. “It’s not about self-flagellation, but I do want to get real about it.”

Dove and Schwab hope up to 50 people a year will “get real” during the program, which will occur quarterly if things go according to plan. 

“Each of those people are going to go back into our community with some different ideas and some different self-awareness of where their actions come from and what informs their worldview,” Dove said. 

That those “cultural ambassadors” will make a difference in the community Dove has no doubt; like a stone thrown into a pond, the effects of Cultural Conversations will ripple out — in one big circle.

“Already I think we’ve made a difference. Ultimately I would like to say that we’re accomplishing world peace,” she laughed. “Ultimately that is pie-eyed and silly, I know. But I would say that my life — each of our lives gets better — because we live in a small community so when members of our society are leading lives with fewer conflicts, that affects all of us. Any step in that direction benefits all of us.”

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