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Leading the way: Folkmoot guides are instrumental in making sure group’s visits run smoothly

By Marian Larson • Contributing Writer

They are part camp counselor, part dorm parent, and part U.N. ambassador.

As Folkmoot arrives in Waynesville this week, the visiting dancers must somehow orient to their temporary American life in the mountains. Someone must help them manage their strict daily routine and orchestrate the elements of their day from meal to shower to performance.

Enter the Folkmoot guides, a group of dedicated staff who commit two round-the-clock weeks of their lives to strangers, many of whom speak little or no English. The guides, in short, act as the dancers’ cultural seeing-eye dogs.

“Our guides can make or break someone’s experience in America,” said Doug Garrett, one of two guide directors. “It’s an incredible responsibility.”

Each group has one male and one female guide that stays with it during the entire festival. The groups and their guides live together at the Folkmoot Friendship Center, sharing rooms, meals and, of course, the infamous late-night parties.

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Guides are instrumental in making the entire festival run smoothly. They make sure that their groups are on the correct buses to get to their performances on time. They help find medical assistance and specific foods for the dancers. Guides often help with souvenir sales at out-of-town performances and even jump in to help with stage managing.

“The guides are great about helping out wherever they’re needed. Folkmoot would be pretty hard to pull off without their flexibility,” said Sarah Keener, assistant to the executive director.

Yet this year’s batch of 22 guides would say that they’re the lucky ones. They are excited and honored to be dedicating part of their summer working with the Folkmoot performers.

“I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never had as much fun as I do at Folkmoot, right here at home,” said Stephanie Hughes, a second-year guide who will be a freshman at Appalachian State University this fall.

Last year, Hughes was a guide for both Spain and Togo, and this year she’s shepherding the Mexican dancers.

“The rewarding part is learning about other cultures and getting to know people. As a guide, you’re forced to interact with people. Without you, they don’t know where to go or what to do, and you grow great friendships from that,” Hughes said.

Stephan Olson is a rising junior at Tuscola High School and is excited to be back this year after having a positive experience as Romania’s guide in 2005.

“The most rewarding part is just the pure experience of it. We’re able to learn about their daily lives on a basic level, and to learn their dances and some of their language.”

Olson and Hughes noted some challenges about the job, including cultural differences, language and dietary barriers, and the logistics of getting dancers to their performances on time.

And when times do get tough, the guides turn to guide directors Doug Garrett and Vivian Poppas for support. Both Haywood County natives, Garrett started out as a guide assistant 22 years ago while Poppas began working in the late 1980s as a bus driver for the festival. They are the eldest guides this year — Poppas is assigned to the New Zealand group and Garrett is working with the dancers from Colombia and Mexico.

Only in the past two years have guides been required to attend an overnight training session — designed and implemented by Garrett and Poppas and held at the Friendship Center.

“We teach both from the guide handbook and from our own experiences. And since we spend the night, we bond and get to know each other a little better,” Poppas said.

And Folkmoot, an Old English word meaning “the meeting of the people,” is the ideal environment for making friendships. Garrett keeps up with at least one person from every group that he has led, and he’s even made trips to Peru, Chile, and Austria to visit with his former charges.

During a Christmas season visit to Austria, only one of the members of the dance group knew that Garrett was coming. That one collaborator schemed to dress Garrett up as St. Nick and take him to a Christmas party attended by the dancers. Garrett gave out presents and stayed in costume until the end of the evening. To everyone’s delight, their Saint Nick was revealed to be “St Doug.”

“I think that’s probably one of my fondest memories, “ Garrett said.

The guides will work their hardest to give similar memories to the visiting internationals this year.

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