Folkmoot: Behind the scenes
The Folkmoot International Festival is a time for dancing, colorful costumes and learning about culture, but there’s a lot more going on beyond the performance stage.
This year, there are seven international groups visiting from Taiwan, Turkey, Trinidad, Colombia, Russia, Romania and Hawaii.
Once the Folkmoot costumes come off and the music is turned down, the visiting international groups like to spend their free time relaxing inside the Folkmoot Center, exploring the community and just overall getting to know each other, despite the many language barriers.
No one knows this better than the Folkmoot guides and translators, who chaperone the groups and communicate for them during the festival.
First time guide Melchor Gamez, 17, is learning that it takes a lot of work to be a translator/guide, but finds it is very rewarding in return. Gamez can be seen alongside the Colombian group translating and helping them stick to the schedule.
Gamez is a native of Mexico but grew up in the United States. While the language is something he knows, he said learning the Colombian culture has been exciting.
“I’m getting to know a different culture that I never knew about,” Gamez said. “It’s been a new experience — everything really has that ‘wow factor.’”
“The way they perform — their incredible stunts just leave with your mouth open. … But we all get along and they communicate well with me, and I tell other people what they try to say,” Gamez added.
Diana Kuzmich, like Gamez, feels as if she’s immersing herself in a new culture by chaperoning a group visiting from central Russia. Even though Kuzmich is from Asheville, Russian was her first language and her mother is from Bellarus, which is bordered by Russia.
“This is a very multi-faceted job — you learn different things to do in different situations. It’s a job you love to hate,” Kuzmich said. “It’s a lot of work but you work with such amazing people that it’s so worth it. So far it has been a blast, and I’m so excited that I got this opportunity.”
Kuzmich, 22, was able to accompany her group to Cherokee to go shopping this past week. She also walked with her group to Walmart plaza so they could shop for clothes and other items they can’t buy in Russia.
“They love it — they were just back and forth buying a lot of clothes and things like Crest Whitestrips,” Kuzmich said. “Things like that are not available in Russia, or hard to find and more expensive.”
But more importantly, Kuzmich said, is that spending time with the Russian group has brought her closer to her Russian roots.
“Learning a mother tongue can connect you to people of your homeland,” she said. “We have a lot of beliefs and understandings in common.”
A caring community
During the afternoons in the Folkmoot Center, the groups enjoy their down time —whether it’s by relaxing in their rooms, rehearsing or going out shopping in the local area. It is also a time for the translators and guides to relax too.
Yurii Romanko, an international visitor from Russia, was seen hanging out in the cafeteria Monday afternoon, waiting for dinner to be served. With Kuzmich translating, Romanko shared what he thought about his Folkmoot experience so far.
“I’m really enjoying the hospitality of the simple people (people who are laid-back) and it doesn’t matter what country you come from,” Romanko said. “People give you great hospitality and warmth and generosity. They have been so observant to our needs and our needs are quickly met.”
Romanko was also very impressed with the cleanliness of the outdoor community, something that is usually not the case in Russia.
“Waynesville is clean and taken care of — it’s nice to live in a place like that. It’s clear to see that you didn’t just clean it up for the festival. The people here are nice — clean and happy people.”
Romanko said he had also enjoyed taking a trip to visit Lake Junaluska and taking photos. He also enjoyed meeting people on the street, he said.
Feeding several dozens of people at the Folkmoot Center every day is no easy job, but it’s something that cooks Maria Pressley and Elke Tate look forward to.Whether it’s serving a buffet of pasta, meat, a salad bar, or countless desserts, the food staff makes sure the groups are well fed.
Tate, visiting from Germany, is the food manager this year — a job that has her working 12-hour shifts in the Folkmoot cafeteria to feed everyone. Still, getting to know the international groups each year makes the job very rewarding, Tate said.
“All these European countries come over here, and I can communicate with them,” Tate said through her heavy German accent. “It’s a lot of fun — it’s a very exhausting two weeks, but it’s worth every minute of it. I’m already looking forward to next year.”
Pressley is originally from Mexico, but has lived in the U.S. since 1965 and has been cooking for Folkmoot since 1984. Before coming to the cafeteria, Pressley previously entertained and fed the groups in her home in Canton.
“I used to own my own restaurant so I know how to allot my time,” Pressley said. “Cooking for Folkmoot takes a lot of time, but it’s been fun all these years. Seeing people who are happy with what I cook — it cannot get better than that.”
Choosing the groups
Folkmoot receives hundreds of applications from international groups each year, but in the end, only a handful is selected.
A group relations committee, made up of Karen Babcock, the executive director of Folkmoot, Rolf Kaufman, Dave Stallings and Douglas Garrett, handles the selection process.
According to Garrett, a plethora of groups send in videos, tapes and YouTube links to the committee and they watch and discuss them.
The committee chooses groups based on good dancing, colorful costumes, and a variety of dances, he said.
“They submit those to us and then we narrow it down and correspond with them through email,” Garrett said. “Then we give them their invitation. From then they work on getting their visas and their monies together to travel.”
“Quality is number one,” Babcock added about the selection process. “Authenticity, the costumes — we try to emphasize traditional culture. We don’t want modern dance, but sometimes they have stylized (approach) in order to express their culture. They embellish it and they do it for entertainment value.”
Babcock said applications for the groups are accepted year round.