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Cloggers, Sikhs, Mariachis and More Unite for 45th Annual Texas Folklife Festival 

click to enlarge Keep Traditions Alive at the Annual Texas Folklife Festival - JAMIE COUCH KRAUTZ
  • Jamie Couch Krautz
  • Keep Traditions Alive at the Annual Texas Folklife Festival

Ballet Folklórico de San Antonio

This year will be a bittersweet one for instructor Boni Ramos and her ballet folklórico dancers. Last month, her mother and executive director of the cultural education organization, Emma D. Ramos, passed away. This will be the first time in 45 years Ramos will attend the festival without her. “She was the driving force and the one that instilled the Mexican history and culture of folklórico dance in us,” Ramos said. “She wanted to make sure that it was available to everybody. I know that she will be there with us in spirit — always smiling and always happy.”

Belgian American Club of Texas

Learn about the history of Belgians immigrating to Texas in the late 17th century and, while you’re at it, partake in as much Belgian food as you can eat, from Belgian sausage (400 pounds should be enough, right?) to Belgian waffles with powdered sugar, strawberries and vanilla ice cream. 

“This is a way for us to show our heritage that was passed down to us and that will continue to pass down to younger generations,” said David Verstuyft, spokesperson for Belgian American Club of Texas. “We’re coming together to share our family recipes.” Along with the mouthwatering cuisine at the festival, BACT will feature their dance troupe, a beer garden with Belgian imports and Belgian bowling — a game that resembles something between shuffleboard and horseshoes.

Fire on the Mountain Cloggers

Linda Carolan first learned to clog when she was a child. Back then, when she was mimicking her great-grandmother to the tune of her grandfather’s fiddle, she didn’t know she’d perform for audiences in Germany, Venezuela and beyond.

Carolan first learned flatfooting, a traditional type of clogging. Clogging itself is a kind of Appalachian-based tap dancing. Its roots reach back to Western Europe, primarily England, Ireland and Germany. As people from those countries migrated to the U.S. and made homes in Appalachia, clogging evolved with the bluegrass music of the area. It came to Texas with the first Scotch-Irish settlers. 

Carolan’s group has existed for about 35 years. Although other clogging troupes integrate more modern music or steps, Fire on the Mountain tries to remain as traditional as possible. Line dances and contemporary tunes haven’t infiltrated the group, and they likely won’t on Carolan’s watch. She sees it as a link to the past — both her own family’s, and the broader culture’s.

“Clogging in its original form, its traditional form, is very important to keep alive,” Carolan said. “We will lose it if we do not continue to educate people about it.”

The dances themselves involve complex taps and steps to create a beat with the clogs. It’s typically performed on a hard surface to amplify the sound of the shoes. Sometimes individual dancers will perform on hard wooden boards for maximum effect. The rattling steps are punctuated with high kicks and yelps by the dancers.

Although she’s been clogging for most of her life, Carolan — now nearly 60 — doesn’t plan to stop soon. Not everyone can clog like her, she says, so she’s got to take advantage of her skill.

“I like to dance because I feel like it’s something that was given to me,” she said. “I just feel very blessed to ... be spry enough to do it.”

click to enlarge Dancers from Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka (top) and Ballet Folklórico de San Antonio - CHUCK CRUSE
  • Chuck Cruse
  • Dancers from Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka (top) and Ballet Folklórico de San Antonio

Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka

Even though she’s a San Antonio native, Rene’e Park is often called upon to teach the traditions of her family’s home — Hawaii. “We actually practice more of our traditions here in San Antonio, or ‘off the rock’ as we say, than we would in Hawaii,” Park said. “A lot of people that move here from the island, they start a family here and say ‘Auntie, come and teach our kids hula.’ You need to.”

Park wears many hats, but one of them is directing Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka, a dance troupe and school. The group’s performances are a mashup of Polynesian cultures. They range from contemporary Hawaiian dances called auwana — a type of Hula — to Tahitian drum dancing, to others based in Maori and Samoan traditions. 

Its roots stretch back to the late 1950s, before Hawaii was even a state. Park’s mother Elizabeth left Maui to serve in the Army. She eventually landed at Fort Sam Houston, where she met Rene’e’s father. 

“In her unit there were several other Hawaiian girls who came. Not only were they women, but they were all very dark-colored in skin and they talked a little different than the mainland people,” Park said. “So my mom vowed then that … they were going to be here. They were sent here on a mission to spread the aloha.”

Since then, spreading Hawaiian culture has been the family business. In addition to dozens of dance performances each year, Park and her family also run a Hawaiian restaurant and catering business, dance classes and a floral shop specializing in leis.

The troupe, which numbers a few dozen, is mostly comprised of local Hawaiian families. Some of its members were on stage before they were out of diapers. That’s what keeps it together after so many years, Park said, and what perpetuates old traditions that might otherwise die out. 

“That’s what it’s all about — keep moving on to the next generation so they’ll learn,” Park said. “Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming, because we think ‘If we stop, what’s going to happen?’”

Lebanese Folk Dancers of St. George

The dance troupe from St. George Maronite Catholic Church has performed in San Antonio since the mid-1960s. A former dancer in the group now serving as the director, Deborah Mery Fernandez has enjoyed watching different generations of dancers, including her children and grandchildren, come through the church and learn, preserve and share the tradition of Lebanese dance, known as dabke. 

“It’s been woven into our lifestyle,” Fernandez said. Along with the art of dance, St. George will feature Lebanese cuisine, including shish kebobs, tabbouleh, baklava and mint tea.

click to enlarge JAMIE COUCH KRAUTZ
  • Jamie Couch Krautz

Mariachi Las Alteñas 

All-female mariachi groups aren’t the norm. But they were even more uncommon when Valerie Vargas started Mariachi Las Alteñas in 2002.
Vargas plays the violin and leads the 10-piece ensemble. She’d played in a professional mariachi group in high school, then founded Las Alteñas in 2002 after she graduated. Since then, the group’s lineup has stayed constant. They’ve been at it for a while now, but the allure of playing music they’re passionate about to a live audience doesn’t get old.

“To have a following and a fan base here in our own home city, it’s always an honor to be able to perform on stage and do a show and get people excited about mariachi music,” Vargas said.

Vargas and the other players are still finalizing their setlist for the festival. The group plays a mix of traditional and contemporary tunes, both in English and Spanish. They’ll play classics, but throw in “At Last” by Etta James or “Orange Blossom Special.”

In addition to appearing all over Texas, the group has also played at the Hollywood Bowl and on Good Morning America. It’s a sisterhood — and one that sometimes gives them an advantage in a competitive industry.

“There’s some people that would think that female mariachis aren’t as good as male mariachis or can’t do the same job,” Vargas said. “When you’re in a female mariachi, you can perform songs that are written more for male artists to perform ... and also perform the songs designed for females. It gives us a little more of a broad, wider range of music we can play or interpret.”

click to enlarge San Antonio Pipes and Drums - CHUCK CRUSE
  • Chuck Cruse
  • San Antonio Pipes and Drums

San Antonio Pipes and Drums

Leading the band of bagpipes and drums into their 45th year at the festival is David Sutherland, who has been a member of the group ever since he was a kid. Although Sutherland admits he’s had to skip a couple of festivals over the last four decades (while stationed in Iraq), he’s proud to say his father, who is in his late 80s, hasn’t missed one.

“Every year, the Folklife Festival turns into a family reunion of sorts,” Sutherland said. “My favorite part is sharing in the cultures.” So, what would Sutherland like Texans to learn about Scottish heritage when they attend the festival? “If you’re from Texas, I can almost guarantee that you are Scottish,” he said. “I invite people to go to the Alamo and look at all those Scottish names and know they have some of that blood running through them.”

click to enlarge Sikh Dharamsal - CHUCK CRUSE
  • Chuck Cruse
  • Sikh Dharamsal

Sikh Dharamsal

Sikh Dharamsal represents the roughly 300 families in San Antonio who are members of the Sikh faith — a 500-year-old religion that originated in northern India.

Sikh men are recognizable by the turbans they wear. The religion is sometimes mistaken as a sect of Islam, according to Gurpaul Singh, the media relations director for Sikh Dharamsal. Having a presence at events like the Folklife Festival, which Sikh Dharamsal has participated in for three years, is important to build a better understanding of the faith within the broader community.

“So often in the post-9/11 era, a turban is associated with a CNN sound bite of something negative — something to almost be afraid of. We are God-fearing people. People who have very similar core values in terms of freedom, equality and we want to share those with the local community,” Singh said.

At the Folklife Festival, Sikh Dharamsal will perform a traditional Punjabi dance called a bhangra. The group will also host a booth where visitors can have their names written in Gurumkhi, the Sikh alphabet, and have a traditional turban tied on their head. The turbans, Singh said, tend to be especially popular. But the performances and attractions point to a larger purpose for the group.

“It’s important that we create awareness of who we are and what we stand for. Where there’s education, awareness and understanding, that’s the antidote to xenophobia and racism,” Singh said.

Rick Smith

Don’t expect to see anything you could find in the aisles of Home Depot or Lowe’s at Rick Smith’s festival exhibit. His collection of old ranch tools dates back 150 years and five generations to the 1860s.

“If you were a machinist or blacksmith or shoe cobbler back then, these are the tools that you would use,” Smith said. “I’ve probably got about 25 hammers that all do a different job.” Along with his hoard of hammers, Smith is traveling from his home in Devine with a 16-foot trailer filled with about 7,000 pounds of instruments — crosscut and rock saws, hand-crank drills and lumberjack tools, to name a few.

Word to the wise: None of Smith’s tools are for sale. You can ask, but do you know anyone who would part ways with a 100-year-old bunghole cutter?

click to enlarge Texas Wendish Heritage Society - CHUCK CRUSE
  • Chuck Cruse
  • Texas Wendish Heritage Society

Texas Wendish Heritage Society

Located in Giddings, Texas, the nonprofit Texas Wendish Heritage Society formed in 1972 to share the story of how the first Wends (a historical name for Slavic pioneers living near Germanic areas), came to call Texas home in the 1850s. At the festival, members will serve up some Wendish delicacies, including “koch kase” (cooked cheese) sandwiches, noodles, gingersnap cookies and pickled watermelon rinds.

“You ask a guy on the street and most have never heard about the Wends,” said TWHS member Ron Knippa. “The festival is a good place to come learn about their immigration. We also like for people to taste some of our noodles."

45th Annual Texas Folklife Festival
$5-$12 (free for kids under 5), 5-11pm Fri, June 10
11am-11pm Sat, June 11, Noon-7pm Sun, June 12
Institute of Texan Cultures, 801 E. César E. Chávez Blvd., (210) 458-2224

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