Art's Trickle-down Theory
or, learning to speak Slovakian in Springville
For 30 minutes on Saturday, Springville, Utah, had the look and feel of Soho.
Well, almost. In Manhattan, it seems, every block brings a new ethnic area, with new smells, language, colorful stalls and roaming locals. In Springville, a Mormon town of 22,000 set hard against the southern tip of the Wasatch Mountains, you could stand at the shady corner of Main and 200 South and the look, sound and languages of the world came at you, then took a left at the corner.
The cause for celebration was the opening parade of the 14th annual Springville World Folkfest, a summertime event that for one week each year brings the world's best folk dancers and folk musicians to a town that, at first glance, appears as un-cosmopolitan and Middle America as anywhere else. But, when you look deeper, you see that is not necessarily the case.
For one week, starting last Saturday and continuing nightly until July 17, folk artists from Albania, Estonia, Greece, Macedonia, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Utah bring their colorful costumes, sometimes strange instruments and usually undecipherable language to Springville's grassy Spring Acres Arts Park.
Though as many pickup trucks as sedans jockey across Main Street and the Polar King's shakes and deep-fried chicken baskets still appear to be standard fare in Springville, the city is quite unlike most others in Utah, not to mention the country.
Starting in the late 1800s, explained Folkfest General Director Teddy Anderson, artists began to settle in Springville, donating art to the city and lending an air of bohemia to the farming town. Artists drew more artists, feeding at times off of nearby Brigham Young University and dance and music programs there.
In the 1930s, the WPA built the Springville Museum of Art, Anderson said. What we decided to do was make art a central focus of life in Springville. Other towns do other things. We do art.
Event founders like Anderson, Dennis Hill, and Karl and Rayma Allred say eventually putting on the World FolkFest was a natural move, but not an easy one. The first year, we held it in a baseball field at the high school, said Hill. The next year, we held it in the football field. I think we bit off a little too much at first, says Karl Allred.
But what has resulted, after 14 years of trial and error, is world class. The event has an A+ rating from United Nations and is known around the world, especially across Europe, where the tradition of promoting folk festivals runs much deeper.
In Springville, the arts board finds host families for the dancers and musicians, taking them in as one more family member. Never mind that no one in the family may speak, say, Greek. It does make for some humorous trips to the grocery store, say hosts like Diane Campbell, a veteran host who this year has four Spaniards spending the week with her. And she doesn't speak a word of Spanish. But, she says, the experience has been a good one, not only for her but for her kids and her neighbors. One of the women staying with me, well it is their tradition to kiss everyone on the cheek twice when you part. The woman kissed my 15-year old son on the cheek. My son was red from embarrassment all day.
Springville Mayor Harold Wing is another who sees the benefits. Look, we are just a small town, and we have people here who have never left the county. But every year, we have people come here from all over the world, world-class folk dancers. And so someone from Springville can say, 'I've never been out of Utah, but each year I live vicariously through hosting Polish, Latvian, or Chinese dancers and musicians.' And that is a great experience for us and for them.
And, it appears, it is a great experience for the dancers, too. Springville may not seem like much to someone from Chicago or San Francisco, but to the folk arts community across Europe and much of the rest of the world, Springville is almost as big a name as anyone else's.
In summer twilight, polkas and songs of home
In summer's delicate, cool twilight, each country took at turn at the Arts Park stage. We started, I think, with Slovakia, then went to Greece, Estonia, the U.S., Spain and Poland (Albania and Macedonia had visa problems, and won't make it to Springville until Monday). They danced, sang, stomped their feet, held hands, whistled, twirled and jumped, mimicked eagles and butterflies, and made the crowd, sacked out on the lawn or sitting casually in folding chairs, clap, whistle and yell approval.
In the end, I couldn't tell what the names of the dances were, what the songs were meant to evoke, or where they originated, though the announcer did mention it all before each dance. I, definitely not a dance fan, sat entranced for the entire two hours, loving it and not knowing why. In retrospect, part of the allure, and perhaps the reason for the World Folkfest's continuing popularity, is that Springville can bring some of the best folk dancers in the world to a brightly-lit stage and yet keep the whole thing so utterly pedestrian that, after performances and during breaks, you can sit with, say, a Slovakian troupe and wear one of the men's feathered hats, play perform an antique accordion, share a Shasta with the clarinet player, or finger the coarse hem of a girl's two-layered dress. The dancers, though true pros, are usually not professionals. They dance on weekends and after work, travelling when invited, but are otherwise as normal as anyone in the crowd. They came here for a good time and for the experience of America and at home they watch MTV Europe, spend holidays with their family, work all day and, as Monika, a 20-year old dancer from Humenne, Slovakia said in halting English, they like pizza and beer. We love coming here, too, Monica said.
Despite the day's heat, the evening cooled off quickly. The grass was cool to the touch, and slightly damp. In the parking lot, dust rose from departing cars. Mayor Wing got into his vintage T-bird and spun the wheels on his way out. The dancers and musicians, still dressed in their extravagant and colorful costumes, talked to each other, with their host families or new friends from other countries. There was one last streak of sunset in the northwest. In the concession area, someone was still selling cheese-stuffed ravioli and bottled water. Boy Scouts were directing traffic out of the park and back to town. I got in my truck and drove home across the desert to Tooele, windows down the whole way, bellowing some nameless song into the wind.
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