Karl Allred remembers well those first rocky years of the Springville World Folkfest he helped found in 1986.
Three years in, the festival almost closed due to financial difficulties. Staff had a hard time saying no to dance troupes across the world who needed money for plane tickets, Allred said. But the biggest hurdle was the public perception that this was just your usual dance festival.
"We had to keep saying, 'No! You don't understand! It's a festival of dancers from all over the world who come to Springville, Utah,' " Allred said. "Even today, I say the same thing to people who've never heard of it."
If the Springville World Folkfest is one of Utah's best-kept summer festival secrets, there's no denying plenty of dancers the world over know it well by now.
For 24 years straight, this big international dance festival in a small Utah town has gathered dance groups from Romania, China, Nepal, Spain and other countries. This year marks the 25th installment, with dancers from Belgium, Bulgaria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Armenia and Israel.
The festival's origins go back to the grand tradition of dance gatherings that pop up all over Europe during the summer. Allred, now a music teacher retired from the Nebo School District, attended many such festivals as a lead fiddle player with the Rocky Mountain Dancers, which toured Europe with Brigham Young University's Folk Dance Ensemble.
"The camaraderie of these festivals was just irresistible," Allred said. "Even countries that didn't normally get along on the diplomatic front put everything aside to dance and have a great time."
That camaraderie manifests itself throughout the festival, on and off the dance stage, said Russell Wulfenstein, festival marketer.
"Other forms of dance, such as modern dance or ballet, exist primarily as art that you see, then go home or out afterward," Wulfenstein said. "A folk-dance festival is about setting real life aside to find a place of joy. You don't always just go home. You can stay and talk to the dancers."
Based on last year's attendance numbers, Wulfenstein estimates a total of 14,000 people attending the festival. It all kicks off Monday with a free street dance. The one iron-clad rule for interested performers is no "canned" music. Every international troupe brings its own musicians for a live performance.
It's also a festival that, behind the scenes, reinforces its own message of cultural exchange. Rather than putting up more than 230 visiting dancers in hotel rooms, the festival relies on volunteer families to take them in. "It's like travel in reverse," said Trudy Peck, of Payson, who has served as the festival's housing chairwoman for five years. "You stay home, and the world comes to you."
Rozella Angell, of Payson, hosted three musicians from Paraguay in her home last year and will board four Bulgarians this year.
"The first year I thought to myself, 'This is crazy.' But my kids thought having international guests was great," Angell said. "It was a lot more fun the following year. We learned how to get on Google's translator so we could cross the language barrier."
Peck said she's still looking for homes to board 10 to 15 more dancers and musicians. At press time, the festival was trying to help dancers from Kenya secure visas.
"It doesn't look like they'll come, but it's still possible," she said. "We've had groups call us unannounced from the airport, so you never know."
Springville World Folkfest
P When • The international dance festival begins at 8 p.m. Monday with a free street dance. Shows starting at 8 run through Saturday, with the pre-show at 7:15 p.m.
Where • Spring Acres Arts Park, 620 S. 1350 East, Springville. Free street dance will be in the parking lot of the Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South.
Tickets • $4-$8. Children under 3 free. Family pass two adults and up to four children available for $25. Groups of 10 or more, $6 per person. Call 801-400-9298 for more information, or visit http://www.springvillefolkfest.com.