Living Traditions Festival returns, bringing joy and reflection on 35th anniversary

More than 80 different cultures participated in the festival.

The 35th anniversary of the Living Traditions Festival was always going to be special for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, but after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to be canceled in 2020, this year’s festival became even more important.

“Not being able to do it last year just kind of hit home because everybody looks forward to this,” said food vendor Corey White. “I know all of these vendors … when [the festival] was taken away, you start to wonder, ‘Hey, I hope no one got COVID. I hope everybody made it through.’ Then you come back out and see everyone here, it’s extra special.”

Felicia Baca, who is the executive director of SLCAC, said that over 80 different cultures participated in the festival. There were live dancing and music performances, food vendors, bocce ball courts and even a COVID-19 vaccination clinic spread throughout the grounds of the Salt Lake City and County building.

“I think that we realized how much we’ve been missing gathering with one another and the joy and gratitude that we have for that ability,” Baca said. “I think until we were back together, we didn’t really know how much we missed it and how much our community missed it.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers from the Viva Peru Dance Academy perform at the Living Traditions festival in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

As part of Living Traditions’ 35th anniversary, Salt Lake City-based production company Twig Media Lab produced a video series called “Living Legacy” to show at the festival. The collection spotlights the experiences of participants in the festival since it began in 1986. SLCAC also hosted pop-up events throughout the city, including performances at Liberty Park and the Gateway, as part of the anniversary celebration throughout May. The Arts Council also celebrated a new partnership with the Sundance Institute, which had a booth on display at the festival.

Twenty-five groups performed at Washington Square on Saturday on stages on the north and south sides of the building as well as on the lawns to the east and west.

“It’s about finding a place of neutrality where you can come together and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from,” said Kahealani Blackmon. “Everyone has a background. Everyone has a culture. So it means a lot to have the Art Council bring everyone together every year.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers with the Malialoloe Polynesian Cultural Arts Ensemble perform at the Living Traditions festival in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Blackmon has been performing at the festival since its origin and now teaches Hawaiian youngsters to perform as part of the Halau Ku Pono I Kamalani group. She sees the festival as an important opportunity for children to publicly connect with their culture.

“It helps bring cultures together,” Blackmon said. “There’s been so much disconnect and animosity with different cultures and ethnicities. This is one place where everyone can come together and it’s OK. … People aren’t feeling judged and are able to express themselves, and I think the Arts Council has done a really great job in that.”

White, who was at the event as a part of the African American Faith Initiative, said that it’s “an honor” to participate in the festival.

“To meet everybody around here … this is real inclusion for Utah, to celebrate all the different cultures here. I’ve seen Utah change and grow over the years. I think this right here, everybody looks forward to coming here,” White said.

The festival also provided an opportunity for artists and vendors to sell their wares after a year without in-person gatherings.

“A lot of the people who come here — artists, performing artists, food vendors, craft artisans — all of those are small businesses,” Baca said. “We know that because of the pandemic that arts and culture was hit harder than almost any industry. … It had a really huge economic impact on the artists that we serve that are businesses in our community.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grupo Folklorico Tollan performs at the Living Traditions festival in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Emmanuel de la Rosa performed pre-Colombian Mayan rituals as part of the Grupo Folklorico Tollan’s performance. He said that normally he doesn’t like to perform, but when he is participating in the traditional Mexican dance routines, a switch flips.

“We’re a group of people that loves to dance and have fun, but also to share our culture,” De La Rosa said. “That’s something we’re trying to root in the current generation so they can celebrate where they come from. ... It’s very fulfilling to be able to perform in front of people that probably have no idea what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.”

Baca said that putting the festival on took more than a year’s worth of preparation and “many pivots” through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. She reported that SLCAC is planning to carry the spirit of the festival into the fall through performances at the Chase Home in Liberty Park on Monday nights and pop-up street dances on Main Street and Edison Street downtown.