Shuffle up, step, turn, cross, heel, step — or wait, was it step, heel, cross? Out on the dance floor, everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.
“If you don’t know this dance,” says a voice to my right as Ren Bannerman comes to sit in the chair next to me, “get behind everyone. That’s kind of a golden rule at dance camps. You might like what you see or hear, but they’re not teaching it necessarily. So you can learn it from behind.”
International folk dance instructor Marcie Van Cleave leads a big-circle dance to a French Canadian folk song in the chapel of the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. photograph by Jack Sorokin
This is my first time at Bannerman Folk Camp, but most of these people have been coming for years — some of them were at the very first camp in 1970. Each year over Thanksgiving weekend, up to a hundred people join the extended Bannerman family at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly — a secluded mountaintop retreat in Black Mountain — for American and international folk dancing, camp songs and field games, old-time music, outdoor cooking workshops, puppetry, and storytelling. Despite reading all of this on the website, I’m still not quite sure what to expect from this weekend; it sounds so different from any Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.
Emboldened by Ren’s words, I jump up to join the other dancers. I stumble through the steps at first, but in time, my muscle memory kicks in.
Shuffle up, step, turn, step, heel, cross. Got it.
Glenn and Evelyn Bannerman founded the Bannerman Folk Camp in 1970. photograph by Jack Sorokin
Every member of the Bannerman family — about 25 of them come to camp each year — has a way of making campers feel welcome, whether it’s their first time or their 50th. For founders Glenn and Evelyn Bannerman, who both died in November 2020, camp was always about more than celebrating folk traditions — it’s about community.
“The thing that has always been amazing to me is Dad’s ability to take a crowd of people and have them eating out of his hand in five minutes,” says Craig Bannerman, Ren’s brother. “[He made] them want to participate in what he was doing. That was a talent and a skill that he had that, in a lot of ways, made this thing possible.”
In the 1960s, Glenn was a professor of recreation and outdoor education at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, and traveled the country teaching folk dancing and clogging. But opportunities for him and Evelyn to dance and play together with their four kids were rare. So the Bannermans decided to create something new, something different — something inclusive.
The Bannerman siblings — Craig, Ren, Beth, and Lee Ann — didn’t grow up with parades, football, and Black Friday shopping over their Thanksgiving weekends. Instead, they danced. For them — and now for their own children and grandchildren — this is the only Thanksgiving they’ve ever known.
“It wasn’t until I was much older that I kind of wished for [a traditional Thanksgiving] and thought I’d like to just watch the Macy’s parade and eat a big meal and watch football,” Lee Ann Bannerman says, then adds with a laugh: “And then the pandemic came, and that’s what we did. And we thought, Oh, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
The folk camp traditions begun by Glenn and Evelyn Bannerman are carried on by their family, including Craig Bannerman (holding the picture frame), Lee Ann Bannerman (to his left), Beth Gunn (in yellow), and Ren Bannerman (behind Beth). photograph by Jack Sorokin
Instead, they looked forward to other Thanksgiving traditions, like the puppet shows that their dad performed before an audience of mesmerized kids — and adults, too. “It was pure magic. It’s like he waved a magic wand and people just gravitated to him,” Lee Ann says.
These days, it’s Glenn and Evelyn’s children and grandchildren — and their spouses — who plan, organize, and execute the weekend, bringing their own ideas, talents, and visions to camp and leading the different activities.
In the auditorium, campers learn square dances, line dances, and circle dances. photograph by Jack Sorokin
Like the cloth snowball fight happening now in the chapel. Balls of knotted strips of cloth whizz past my head. The small chapel is divided in two, and each side is trying to win by making sure there are fewer “snowballs” left on their side when time is up. Everyone from toddlers to grandparents are squealing in delight as they duck and jump out of the way of flying fabric.
“The key is to set aside any sense of dignity, and you’ll have a good time,” jokes 20-year-old Sara Bowen. She’s here with her parents, sister, cousin, and grandfather this year. When I ask her how old she was when she first started coming to camp, she laughs. “Well, I was born in July,” she says, “so we’re talking months at that point.”
I’ve met campers who’ve been attending for 20, 30, 40 years or more. A few were Glenn’s students at PSCE. Some folks stopped coming when the camp moved from Richmond to Black Mountain in 2001, but many still make the drive, including the Bowens.
Campers like Craig Bannerman (foreground) and Debbie and David Stubbs enjoy buffet-style meals throughout the weekend. photograph by Jack Sorokin
When campers gather for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner buffet in the dining hall on Thursday evening, family members might sit together, or they might not, choosing instead to sit with the friends they haven’t seen since last year — and no one is relegated to the kids’ table.
For the handful of new people who come to camp each year, it doesn’t take long to feel like part of the group. In the morning, a member of the Bannerman clan who’s barely 6 leads me to the chapel for Family Time. Another Bannerman invites me to sit with part of the family for Thanksgiving dinner. During a square dance, someone else grabs my hand and brings me into their group. “That’s the one thing about folk dancing that’s universal,” Bowen says. “We never let anyone sit on the sidelines.”
Old-time melodies float down peacefully from the small stage at the front of the chapel, but tempo doesn’t mean much to the half dozen kids dancing in front of the stage, still full of energy from the snowball fights and circle dances earlier. But Craig Bannerman and longtime camper Frank McConnell, both singing and playing guitar, aren’t bothered. They love seeing the kids participate. This is what Bannerman Folk Camp is all about.
It’s Sunday morning, and the crowd in the chapel is a little slimmer than the days before. Those who came from Pennsylvania and beyond have already packed up for the long drive home. Those who remain pat me on the back and say, “You’re still here!” with genuine happiness, as if they had been worried they wouldn’t be able to say goodbye.
Banners made by visiting families during previous camps hang around the chapel. photograph by Jack Sorokin
It’s a bittersweet moment — the last “camp” of camp. Sitting among so many people who welcomed me as one of their own, I realize that this isn’t really so different from Thanksgivings with my family. I spent time with people I’ve now come to care about, bonding over food, fun, dance, and a shared experience.
Craig and Frank step off the stage. The lights in the chapel dim in preparation for the final puppet show, and parents corral their dancing kids, who pile together in front of the small theater. For a moment, they’re quiet and still. The curtain opens, the puppets rise from below, and everyone shares in this magical moment — together.