“He invited me to his house for a meeting,” Kaufman recalled. “I didn’t know what it was about; he didn’t tell me, but did say it was something I would be interested in.”
That something was an idea Border had been mulling over and researching the last few years. After accompanying a local dance troupe to a folk festival in England in 1973, Border felt Southern Appalachia could mimic the concept of the event. Already a haven for the heritage and preservation of mountain music and clogging, Western North Carolina seemed the ideal location to Border for a festival. That idea became the Folkmoot USA, the international dance and music festival.
Fast forward 30 years, and Kaufman — a festival supporter from its inception and a longtime board member — is among just a handful of people who have attended or been a part of all 30 Folkmoot festivals.
“I had no past experience with folk dancing, music traditions or anything of that sort,” Kaufman said. “But it grew on me, and I’ve never been able to leave it. I’m 82 years old now, and it has become my passion.”
Folkmoot (an old English word meaning “meeting of the people”) is the state’s official international festival and in the course of its existence has hosted more than 8,000 performers from more than 100 foreign countries.
“Frankly, for a rural area like this, having entertainers come from around the world and perform, it’s pretty special,” said John Browning, who with his wife, Pat, is among that small group of local residents who can proudly say they’ve attended each and every one of the 30 Folkmoot celebrations.
“This isn’t Asheville or New York City, and we’re able to have this. Where else are you going to see this type of entertainment coming from all of these different countries? It’s priceless,” he said.
“We’ve enjoyed so many groups over the years, like the dancers from Ireland and Russia or the Mexican performers,” he said. “My wife and I were just thrilled by all the colorful outfits and music, especially when we went to the Stompin’ Ground.”
Since the inaugural year, the Stompin’ Ground in Maggie Valley has been one of the main venues for Folkmoot performances. And from day one, owner Kyle Edwards — one of those who has seen performances from every year of Folkmoot — has been more than willing to provide the performers a suitable place to display their sacred, beautiful traditions.
“Folkmoot is something the kids get to see without having to travel throughout the world,” he said. “They get to see it at home, when maybe they’d never get the chance to see any of these things. It has worked out well for everybody.”
Edwards remembers being approached by Border with the idea to use the venue for his new festival. Edwards saw an opportunity to not only help the event but also get the word out about his unique performance venue. The Stompin’ Ground is the self-proclaimed “World Capital of Clogging,” and Edwards and his wife work hard to preserve traditional clogging.
“I told Dr. Border, ‘I have the place. You set’er up, and we’ll do it here,’” Edwards said. “I remember the full house that opening night, and it’s been a full house every night ever since. It’s also really nice to bring people into my building that otherwise would never come in.”
Kaufman remembers vividly the ambiance and cherished experience during that first Folkmoot celebration.
“It was a revelation to see those traditions from various countries and to witness the open-mindedness between the local people and international performers,” he said. “I was particularly impressed with the impact the festival has had on all of the young people growing up in this area.”
For many young people in Western North Carolina, Folkmoot has always been in their lives. They’ve grown up with it, been to the programs, and many of them have participated in the festival, whether through performing themselves, volunteering or being a guide for one of the guest countries.
“Over the years, there have been hundreds of guides who lived with a group for two weeks, day and night,” Kaufman said. “And those experiences definitely affected their career futures, many of which getting involved with jobs overseas or involved in international affairs.”
As Folkmoot evolved, so did Kaufman’s role in the festival. From his early support and help with preparing and hosting the event, he soon became the director of group relations for Folkmoot, as well as a member of the festival commission for the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts (CIOFF). In essence, Kaufman is the person who seeks out and identifies the groups picked to perform at Folkmoot.
“We try to achieve a certain balance by varying our sources in groups and try not to recruit the same acts year after year,” he said. “We look for performers with a great reputation and are very conscious about the visa process for these foreign groups to come overseas.”
Folkmoot has come a long was from its humble beginning where performers were housed at local schools. Though the Folkmoot Center has provided a great space to host the performers, operational and repair costs are mounting, not to mention the increase in travel costs and visa applications. Due to a lack of state and federal funding, the nonprofit festival is about to embark on a capital campaign to help it remain viable for another 30 years.
“I hope the first 30 years of Folkmoot is a solid base to survive another 30,” Kaufman said. “We need to rebuild our endowment and become more visible year-round, preserving the intangible traditions, because Folkmoot has become an identifying event for Western North Carolina, and we don’t want to lose that.”