Folkmoot at 40 is much different than the younger version of itself . But it’s still here, and for that Western North Carolina should be proud. This is a festival that celebrates friendship, understanding and peace, all valuable commodities in a time when rancor and discord are way too common.
The roots of Folkmoot USA — which was first held in 1984 — go back to when Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, when the culture of many Eastern European countries was being strangled by autocrats who were puppets of the Soviet politburo.
In those heady days of the 1980s when a group from Poland or Romania would travel to Waynesville and dance and sing about their unique customs and history, in some ways it was a slap in the face to dictators who feared these young entertainers would be seduced by the supposed opulence and the singular freedoms enjoyed by those in the U.S. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, when parts of Europe were adjusting to their new political realities, the allure of traveling to the U.S. for many of these dancers and musicians was apparent.
The interactions between the groups are what always inspired many of us who helped keep the festival going. When you witness first-hand how politics that divide a country’s leaders dissolve quickly when, for instance, Russian and French dancers use the same rehearsal space and begin dancing together, or when an Israeli group and Turkish Muslims laugh and cut up together during meals, becoming fast friends in a mere two weeks. There was magic in that.
And the interactions of young people from Western North Carolina with so many of the entertainers was another part of the festival that made it so grand. Many people now approaching middle age still maintain lifelong friendships with people from other countries, thanks to this festival.
I’ve been a Folkmoot fan since I moved here in 1992. I got involved soon after, was on the board of directors for many years and now serve in that capacity once again. It’s been great fun, and my family and many friends have lots of great memories tied to this festival. Folkmoot promotes humanity, supports building bridges rather than fences. It’s motto, “many cultures, one community,” could be a standard for this country. What’s not to like about that?
Times have changed. The festival where a dozen groups of 20 to 30 dancers and musicians from all over the world would stay in Waynesville and travel throughout the region for two weeks will never happen again. It’s become way too expensive, travel arrangements nearly impossible to coordinate, visas difficult to obtain for many, potential financial liabilities always lurking. Tickets are a tough sell as there are so many entertainment options in this culturally-rich region.
And then there was the pandemic, which nearly shuttered the festival. But Folkmoot hung on. There’s still an International Day on July 29 and a Summer Soiree fund-raiser on July 20. These are the two signature events for this year. And there are monthly concerts and shows in the Queen Auditorium. The Folkmoot Friendship Center’s classrooms are brimming with artists and artisans who are making use of the space to create some dynamic work. I would invite anyone who hasn’t visited the center in a while to take a tour.
Folkmoot has turned a corner. I like to tell people that it’s crawling, now, re-learning how to remain relevant. It’s re-learning how to stay financially afloat. It’s re-defining itself as a hub for the arts. And it’s hosting some great music and other events. One day in the future, it may soar again as one of this region’s premier festivals. If it’s going to get there, it needs the community’s support. Only time will tell.