Dance As A Bond

When I told Door County Folk Festival co-founder Gerhard Bernhard that I hadn’t ever heard of the Door County Folk Festival (DCFF) until a few years ago, he wasn’t surprised. In fact, he wasn’t even offended. “The people who are interested in folk dancing make up a certain segment of the population,” he said. “It seems to be popular in colleges and universities, but still – it’s a very specialized interest.”

Photo by Dan Eggert.

A specialized interest, yes – but an interest that is still going strong in certain parts of the United States. And each year on the weekend after the Fourth of July, people from those certain parts flock to Door County for the annual DCFF. Now celebrating its 30th season on the peninsula, the folk festival is a bit of a mystery – something that some look forward to all year, and at the same time unknown to almost everyone on the peninsula. This year’s festival is set for July 8 through July 12, and contains no shortage of dance workshops, dance parties, singing workshops, and continuing education programs.

The DCFF festival grew out of not only Bernhard’s interest in folk dancing but also the allure of Door County.

“I had lived in Chicago for about 20 years but had started to vacation on the Door Peninsula in 1968,” said Bernhard. “From the moment I visited, I knew I wanted to retire there – interesting thoughts for a man who was only in his early 30s at the time!” However, Bernhard finally got to a point where he was able to spend full summers in Door County beginning in 1977. He found that he loved the slower pace of the peninsula – but missed his love of folk dancing.

Folk dancing is a more than a hobby for Bernhard – it’s an activity very close to his heart. “As a musician I became interested in the rhythms of folk dance music from different countries,” says Bernhard. “I feel like a dance often tells a story through its music and choreography.”

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Bernhard knew in order to make the DCFF a reality, he had to enlist some help.

“Paul Collins and I had been best friends for close to 40 years. I was a folk dance enthusiast, but he was the internationally respected dancer and teacher,” Bernhard says. “One day, I was looking out at the Sister Bay park, and I thought, ‘this would be a great place to start an ethnic festival of some sort. I’d love to have at least one weekend where people could come up here to dance.’”

He told Collins about it, who was on board immediately, and the first Door County Folk Festival was held in July of 1979.

Collins says that while the DCFF is a huge success today, the first years were a little interesting.

“We lost money those first few years,” he says. “But we began networking a little more to folk dance organizations in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Pretty soon it just kind of built a fire around itself. Now the participants book their hotel rooms a year in advance, and we have 400 people participating every year. The growth has been wonderful.”

Photo by Dan Eggert.

The premise of the festival is pretty simple – and fun. Both Collins and Bernhard agree that it’s really a tradition of dancing, singing, and learning.

“It’s really a place where teachers and participants can share experiences and make new friends in a congenial community atmosphere,” Collins says.

In looking at the DCFF’s calendar of events, the fun is easy to spot – there are group dinners on Friday and Saturday, a variety of dance parties all the way from Wednesday through Sunday, and 36 different dancing, singing, and exercise workshops. Everything from ethnic folk dance to contra/square dancing to swing dance is covered, with special singing workshops devoted to Western Bulgarian/Serbian and Eastern European Singing. The festival itself is in many different venues throughout Sister Bay and Ephraim, with the Sister Bay Village Hall and the Ephraim Village Hall being the main location for dances and workshops.

The festival is staffed by some of the best local dance leaders, teachers, and callers in the Midwest and beyond, including cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, South Bend, Dayton, Omaha, St. Louis, and Winnipeg, Ontario.

Even though he and Bernhard are co-directors, Collins says that it takes a lot more manpower than just the two of them to make the DCFF happen every year.

“I do the majority of the work from my home in Chicago,” says Collins, who not only handles registration but also helps most of the participants find hotel rooms for the duration of the festival. Many of the other tasks for the festival are handled by DCFF’s Planning Committees and Work Scholars. These scholars live all over the Midwest and help carry out every task imaginable – from pre-event planning organization to light accounting work to cleaning the venues before the event.

A full-time scholarship is 10 – 15 hours for the entire weekend, and compensation includes a weekend pass to all events and housing for the duration of the festival.

Collins says that the Work Scholar program is what allows the DCFF to run so smoothly. “People take pride in working on the festival,” he says. “Collectively, it’s a great experience for everyone.”

Bernhard agrees. “During our 30 year history, we’ve had folk dancers come from all over the United States and more than two dozen different countries. It’s the dancing that brings all these people together. There’s just something about it that provides a common bond in understanding people.”

For more information about this year’s Door County Folk Festival, visit

Door County Folk Festival

If you’re interested in learning more about the Door County Folk Festival, you don’t have to be registered to take advantage of all of the events. There are many events that are open to the general community:

Friday, July 10:

• 12:30 – 1:30 pm:  Free Community Concert at the Baileys Harbor Town Hall

• 8:30 pm:  Ethnic Dance Party with the Maritza Folk Dance Band and Orkestar Sloboda, Sister Bay Village Hall

• 8:30 pm:  Square and Contra Dance party with The Last Gaspe Dance Band, Ephraim Village Hall

Saturday, July 11:

• 6 pm:  Fish Boil Dinner at the Sister Bay Park. Three seatings at 6 pm, 6:30 pm, and 7 pm, followed by live entertainment and dancing on the Sister Bay Pier.

• 8:30 pm:  Ethnic Dance Party with Maritza Folk Dance Band and Orkestar Sloboda, Sister Bay Village Hall

• 8:30 pm:  Swing Dance Lessons followed by Swing Dance Party, Ephraim Village Hall, $13.

Sunday, July 12:

• 8:30 pm:  Ethnic Dance Party with live and recorded ethnic and international dance music, Sister Bay Village Hall, Free.