It began as an idea, a desire to bring the color and excitement of international folk dance to a small town in Utah.
Now, after 30 years, the Springville World Folkfest remains one of the largest festivals of folk dance and music in the United States. Hundreds of dancers and musicians from more than 45 countries have performed, thousands of spectators have watched and cheered them on, and an outdoor amphitheater has grown literally out of bare soil to become a state-of-the-art facility specifically designed to accommodate folk dancing.
The Springville World Folkfest was born during a meeting in January of 1986 of individuals who hoped to create a festival of folk dance and music in Springville. This group included Mary Bee Jensen, founder of Brigham Young University’s International Folk Dance Ensemble, who traveled often with her students to folk festivals around the world. In 1975, she held her own festival at BYU as part of the university’s centennial celebration, and “Christmas Around the World,” the university’s annual folk dance extravaganza, was her own version of a kind of folk festival.
Also present at the meeting was George Frandsen, a young Salt Lake City lawyer who dreamed of having his family and friends enjoy the graceful court dances of Poland, the ballet-like features of Japanese folk dancing and the swish of the huge banners of Belgium without leaving their home state. Skilled bluegrass fiddler Karl Allred, his wife Rama Allred and Kristeen Harrington also attended.
At that meeting, the dream was placed in motion, but it would take countless hours of hard work if the dream were to become fact. Hundreds of dancers would need to be housed, fed and transported – sometimes without the ability to communicate in English.
Faith in the proposed project drew the financial support of Springville’s City Council in a time when few city leaders would have seen beyond fiscal concerns. Thousands of hours were expended by volunteers. Local residents opened their homes and their hearts to the dancers as host families. A wooden stage was erected for the Folkfest over home plate in a baseball field northwest of Springville High School – and the first Springville World Folkfest was presented in August of 1986.
The first Folkfest delivered 12 performances and four folk parades with 460 dancers from 13 countries participating. At its inception, it was the largest folk festival in the United States. Some 43,000 patrons came – and so it was one starry night the festival founders gazed into the faces of an overflow audience of 5,000, having accomplished the impossible.
The Folkfest’s first board was formed in 1987 with George Frandsen as president and board members Brent Haymond, Mary Bee Jensen, Kris Harrington, Dennis Hill, Bruce Olsen, Karl Allred, Colleen Drollinger, Delora Bertelsen, Pete Roundy and Bart Skinner.
In its first years, Folkfest performances were held in Salt Lake County venues such as the Capitol Theater and Symphony Hall. The high cost of securing these venues eventually led the Folkfest to present all its performances in Springville.
After its first year, the Folkfest was held on stages built on the Springville High School football and soccer fields – with performances occasionally moved into the Springville High School Auditorium due to inclement weather – before a new venue became available. The Spring Acres Arts Park, an area northeast of Springville High School naturally sheltered by a hill and mature trees on one side and named for springs that welled up out of the ground, was developed into an outdoor amphitheater by Springville City.
A concrete stage designed specifically for the needs of the Folkfest – with two side stages where one live band could perform while the next one set up on the other side – was erected at the Arts Park and the Folkfest began using the park as its permanent home in 1991.
Each year since then, improvements have been made to the Arts Park. The bare concrete stage became flanked by towering poles bearing the weight of state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment. A canopy over the stage was added to shield performers from the elements. Sound cables were buried and professional sound equipment permanently installed. City employees groomed the grounds and permanent bleacher seating was added. A permanent sound booth was constructed and a new building added that houses restrooms, a ticket booth and a first aid area.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to greater difficulties in obtaining visas allowing dance groups to travel to the Folkfest. Financial instability in the world also made it difficult for groups to obtain the money to reach Utah, and the number of groups attending each year dwindled until the Folkfest had to be canceled in the summer of 2007 due to lack of groups. In 2008, however, the Folkfest was back up and running with a new selection of dance groups for audiences, and attendance and interest from countries around the world has been growing every since.
In recent years, the Folkfest has partnered with other folk dance festivals in the Intermountain West, including the Summerfest International Art and Folk Festival in Bountiful and Magic Valley Folk Festival in Burley, Idaho, and coordinated its schedule with theirs so the dancers and musicians can attend more than one festival while they are in the USA and make the most of their international travel.
Hundreds of local families during the last 30 years have had the experience of housing dancers and musicians from around the globe in their homes. Amazingly, strangers at the beginning of the Folkfest have become fast friends within the short week of the Folkfest, and many tears are shed each year as the dancers board their buses to leave Springville. Some dancers have returned years later to visit their host families, and some families have traveled to other countries and stayed in the homes of their former visitors.
One of the primary goals of the Folkfest is to foster love and understanding among peoples of all lands and cultures. From their first experience in becoming part of an American family to saying goodbye to a dear friend made during a week’s time, the Folkfest offers a true opportunity for participants and patrons to come to know, understand and even love each other.