Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance?: Folk Arts Program

By Amy Brunvand

Honoring the art of Utah’s invisible communities—thanks to the fed. stimulus package, Utah’s 33-year-old Folk Arts Program endures.

by Amy Brunvand

I am ESPECIALLY pleased to announce the lineup of our annual summer concert series,” read an email I received from Craig Miller, Folk Arts Coordinator for the Utah Arts Council. The word “especially” was in all caps because earlier this year the Utah Folk Arts Program was not only on the chopping block, it was entirely (if briefly) eliminated-due to recession-related budget cuts. Fortunately, state funding for folk arts has been given a reprieve with help from President Barack Obama’s federal stimulus package and the Utah Department of Community and Culture headed by former Salt Lake City mayor Palmer DePaulis.

Government funding for folk arts may seem like fluff during a recession, but lack of money doesn’t make the arts less important to a community. Utah’s Folk Arts Pro_gram was established in 1976, one of the first state programs designed to specifically serve traditional arts. It coordinates the performers and craft demonstrations that showcase Utah’s cultural diversity at the annual Living Traditions Festival every May.

Because it celebrates and promotes arts that arise directly from diverse community groups, the Folk Arts Program has been particularly important to the kind of communities that are sometimes invisible and often marginalized-refugees, immigrants, ethnic minorities and native tribal groups, for example.

The “Mondays in the Park” concerts began in 1987. A year later, when rising waters of the Great Salt Lake were diverting Utah tax dollars to flood control, BYU folklorist William A. Wilson (at the time on the Board of Directors of the Utah Arts Council) defended public money for folk arts, writing, “It is my firm belief that folklore will give us the best picture we can get of our fellow beings struggling to endure.” And in tough times endurance is what it’s all about.brunvand_dance

If you take a picnic supper and go to the Mondays in the Park concerts (see sidebar), it’s easy to see what Wilson meant about the importance of folklore. The performers are everyday people, and the audience is usually packed with friends and relatives glowing with pride for the performers on stage. It can be a bit of an out-of-Utah experience to sit in a crowd of people who are not standard Utah blondes, hearing casual conversations in foreign languages or watching people dance spontaneously on the grass along with the performers on stage. And it can also be surprising to realize that Utah is not quite the monoculture many assume it is. For example, did you know that outside of Honolulu the three cities with the highest percentage of native Hawaiians are West Valley City, Utah; Hayward, Calif.; and Salt Lake City?

Miller is especially proud that the Folk Arts Program concert series provides an outlet for performers who are usually seen only within their own communities. He is constantly on the lookout for small, obscure community groups, in order to bring their art to a broader audience. “I’m excited about the Brazilian band [Corcovado Band, scheduled for August 10th],” he says. “I just found them at a Brazilian festival last year, and they sing Bossa Nova, kind of like Sergio Mendes.” The Corcovado band is paired on a program with another Brazilian group: Salt Lake Capoeira. Miller particularly likes the acrobatic dance/martial art because, he says, it challenges stereotypes. “Boys love it and it makes them aware of dance as a possibility,” he says.

Beyond the Folk Arts Program, few outside sources of sup_port exist for such community-based groups. As Miller says, “Folk art and folk traditions will never be lost, but it is easy to lose perception of them, and what this program does is research and document traditional culture, shares the information with the general public, and ensures the perpetuation of treasured heritage.”

For instance, this summer Mon_days in the Park is highlighting Native American artists in conjunction with KUED community outreach for “We Shall Remain,” the national PBS series that documents history from a Native American Perspective.

“It’s a bit ironic,” comments Miller, considering that this year the Folk Arts Program came so close to extinction itself. Current funding, however, will support the program through fiscal year 2010, and Miller says he is encouraged by the outpouring of support from folk artists, colleagues around the country, legislators and the public who didn’t want to lose the Utah Folk Arts Program. It’s impossible to predict when the recession will end. But Miller says, “The vision of the Department of Community and Culture is to make the program stronger and better.”

Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the University of Utah and a dance enthusiast.

Mondays in the Park concerts:

7 pm, Chase Home Museum, Liberty Park (enter at 600 E. 900 S. or 600 E. 1300 S.) Free. Bring a picnic and a blanket.

August 3: Native American Hoop dance/Hawaiian dance/Maori dance

August 10: Brazilian music/Capoiera

August 17: Navajo music/Jewish klezmer/Chilean dance

August 24: Intertribal pow wow demonstration

KUED. We Shall Remain: A Native History of Utah for dates



This article was originally published on July 30, 2009.