WAYNESVILLE — Every summer for three decades, hundreds of folk dancers from around the world have come to Western North Carolina, where their bright costumes and foreign tongues mingle with mountain accents and clogging shoes.
Folkmoot USA, started in 1984, is now one of the largest folk dance festivals in the world, with at least 10 days of performances at more than a dozen venues in Haywood and other mountain counties.
Rolf Kaufman, an 83-year-old native of Germany, has been a part of the cultural festival all along. The only founding member on the festival’s volunteer board, Kaufman still helps hand-pick the best performers from across the world.
He attends the performances and visits the late-night get-togethers where the dancers perform for one another and mingle. He keeps up with his colleagues at other folk festivals internationally, building contacts that help him improve the festival’s quality.
And he’s helping to lead Folkmoot into a new era. The nonprofit group took ownership of the historical school where it is based last week and is undertaking a capital campaign to renovate the building, with hopes of expanding it into a year-round enterprise.
“He’s a powerhouse of a guy,” Patsy Wells, ticket manager for Folkmoot, says of Kaufman. “He’s been a driving force behind Folkmoot for many years and he’s our go-to guy for any historical information about it. He’s full of ideas for expanding it and making it better.”
Kaufman says he had no interest in folk dance before his neighbor pitched the idea of bringing international dancers to Waynesville. Hundreds of performances later, he says the festival has helped connect a community with its own strong cultural traditions to others around the world. Last year, attendance reached nearly 30,000.
He’s particularly proud of the youth who serve as guides to the visiting performers, staying with them and helping them navigate a foreign culture. Many have gone on to travel widely and even change their career paths due to the exposure.
“It’s opened a lot of eyes around here,” Kaufman says.
Kaufman came from a family of German Jews who traveled to Belgium, France and eventually the United States to escape the Nazis during World War II.
His father’s business partner chose Waynesville as the U.S. home for their shoe business during the 1940s. Their factory, which used a patented method of attaching rubber soles to shoes, required the cool water prevalent in the area.
In his youth, Kaufman had no plans to enter the family business. He spent his last two years of high school in Waynesville and went on to N.C. State University, where he earned two degrees in chemical engineering.
The family business
He went into the Army after graduation, and by the time he returned, his family’s company had grown significantly.
So he took a job there, rising up the ranks to become its president. The company came to specialize in military footwear. It went public, and eventually a majority shareholder sold it to a company that closed the Waynesville factory. By then, Kaufman was partially retired.
Kaufman was involved in the area’s civic life, and so was among the group of community leaders gathered by Dr. Clinton Border in 1983 that spawned Folkmoot.
Border, a Waynesville surgeon, had accompanied a group of local cloggers to a festival in Europe, and thought such a festival would be a great fit for Waynesville – a way to bring the world to a community that was isolated but had a deep sense of culture.
Kaufman was among those who embraced the idea, and they got to work immediately on arranging the first show. Kaufman has been on the board ever since and served as its president for two years.
“I became fascinated by it,” says Kaufman. “I found it was a very exciting way to bring people from all over the world here.”
Since then, thousands of performers from more than 100 countries have performed in the area, and the festival brings $9 million a year to the local economy, according to an economic impact study commissioned by Folkmoot.
Since his retirement in the 1990s, Kaufman has taken on an even more active role. He heads the committee that chooses performers and belongs to an international group that links organizations that support folklore festivals worldwide.
The association requires him to travel internationally to meetings in locales as distant as Thailand. He says the contacts he makes help him bring the best entertainers to Folkmoot.
The number of groups has varied over the years, but the formula is the same. Groups of dancers are chosen from around the globe and pay for their travel to Asheville. From there, Folkmoot covers their room and board and their travel to the venues where they perform.
The performers aren’t paid, though some receive support from their governments or universities.
Folkmoot employs a director and a handful of other employees and volunteers year-round. Come summer, 60 paid workers and hundreds of volunteers staff the event.
A home for Folkmoot
The festival has long housed its operations in school buildings not in use during the summer festival. About a decade ago, the school district allowed Folkmoot to lease a school built in the 1920s that was no longer in use. Last week, the county deeded the building to Folkmoot.
The group will need to raise $550,000 to upgrade the structure. It has raised more than $150,000 so far and is conducting public events to gather ideas for using the building year-round with a focus on cultural activities.
During the festival in July, the buildings are home base for performers, who sleep in classrooms and eat all their meals in the cafeteria. Last week, volunteers were setting up bunk beds for their arrival.
The groups perform all over the state’s westernmost counties, logging thousands of miles every year on the activity buses Folkmoot rents from local schools.
Over the years, the number of venues has expanded. In the past few years, local performers were added to the bill, including native Cherokee dancers and Appalachian cloggers.
Diversity of dance
Kaufman can’t name a favorite country, though he notes that dances from some countries, such as Russia and Mexico, tend to be crowd pleasers, while some western European cultural traditions are more sedate.
Some groups perform strictly traditional dances, while others do their own choreography incorporating traditional elements. Kaufman admits he’s no expert on cultural dances, though he’s now seen thousands of them.
But he tries to choose groups that are both fun and educational.
“I tend to look at them with an eye for what the audience is going to like,” he says. “We have to entertain them in order to get them here. Then we have to educate them.”
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