The new executive director of Folkmoot USA, Haywood County’s famed international dance festival, is perfectly poised to help the event’s multinational participants adjust to their unfamiliar surroundings — after all, she’s a newcomer here herself.
Karen Babcock, 47, was recently hired as the third full-time executive director in Folkmoot’s 25-year history. Babcock hails from Maryland, where she spent the past11 years as associate director for the non-profit Ladew Topiary Gardens. While visiting friends a year and a half ago, Babcock fell in love with the culture and scenery of Haywood County.
Itching for a new challenge, Babcock was alerted to the Folkmoot position by a friend. It turned out to be a perfect fit for Babcock, a world traveler who’s always had a flare for international culture.
“From the time I was a child, my parents would host kids from across the globe through a student exchange program,” she said. “That was my first taste of international world and cultures.”
The Folkmoot job also allows Babcock to combine her love of the arts. She holds English and writing degrees and was in charge of a series of 10 high-profile summer concerts at her previous job.
“I’ve always loved music,” she said. “I listen to music all the time, and I especially love world music.”
Babcock was drawn to Folkmoot because it fit with her passions, but she was also taken by the uniqueness of the festival. Every year, dancing troupes from about a dozen countries spanning the globe perform and live in close quarters for two weeks.
“What makes it unique and very special at the same time is that it brings together people from all over the world,” she said. “We create a little village here, and in that time period people break down boundaries and forge relationships. It’s like a little Olympic village of athletes, but it’s a village of musicians and performers.”
Babcock’s only been in her position a few days, so she says it’s too early to detail her plans for Folkmoot.
“I’m in observation mode, and I’ll work with the board of directors to institute changes that we agree upon,” she said.
She does know that her first focus will be on fundraising.
“Folkmoot really depends upon people’s donations and contributions,” she said.
To garner support, Babcock wants to raise the festival’s profile.
“I believe Folkmoot is one of the most unique events in the country,” she said. “It has quite a lot of notoriety in a good way and lots of positive buzz bout it. One of the things I’d love to do is raise the profile outside of the state and region.”
Babcock will also be working to establish connections within the community as she gets to know her new hometown.
“My first business has to be getting to know everybody and understanding who everybody is in the community, and to forge new relations and partnerships,” she said.
Folkmoot Executive Board President Scott McLeod said Babcock stood out among a field of high-quality candidates.
“Karen was our unanimous choice, and we are excited about what she will bring to the festival and the community,” McLeod said. “We encourage Folkmoot volunteers and festival supporters to stop by the Folkmoot Center and introduce themselves.”
Meanwhile, the Folkmoot Board of Directors kept busy while they searched for a new director, and are already well underway recruiting groups to perform next summer.
Several board members traveled to Turkey last month for the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Art, Babcock said. Folkmoot has extended invites to groups in five countries and will aim to secure a total of nine groups for next year’s festival.