Well over 50 languages are spoken in Northern Virginia, and the cultures that go with them are far from melting away. The nine-year-old Northern Virginia Folk Festival Association celebrates this ethnic diversity in a gala folk weekend every two years. The next is scheduled for May.
The association is whetting local appetites, however, with a six-month program called "Around the World in Twelve Nights." Every two weeks, representatives of one of 12 cultures will be on hand at Arlington's Gunston Center to lead folk dances, cook ethnic foods and demonstrate special crafts.
Scottish Night, held earlier this fall, presented all three cultural glimpses with a low-key, homey touch. In the middle of the center's cafeteria, kilted dancers flung themselves into "reels" and "rants," led by the red-haired Jean Rea Rogers.
The oft-repeated admonishment, "This is not a spectator sport," drew members of the audience into the fray, and some surprisingly graceful dancing followed. The success of this experiment is attributed to Rogers, and accredited Scottish dance teacher whom one breathless participant described as "a good caller."
Back in the kitchen, Laura Dressel, a nurse who hails from the west coast of Scotland, introduced guests to cultural nibbling. She, and anyone who cared to join her, were preparing shortbread -- a rich, cookie-like bread whose principal ingredient is butter.
Three onlookers who introduced themselves as Irish removed their rings and started kneading the butter into its accompanying high-calorie ingredients. "We came down for the German night two weeks ago," said one of the women as she worked the dough. "We enjoyed it so much, we thought we'd come back."
Most of the crowd fell into the same category. The few Scots present were leaders rather than followers.
"Scotty" Thompson, for instance, a kilted craftsman, gave instruction in the art of whittling. With concentrated stares, guests struggled to transform wooden sticks into "spurdles."
A spurdle, for the uninitiated, is a stick used by the Scots to stir porridge, and should come in handy for hot oatmeal on winter mornings. Decorated with a thistle-shaped knob at the top, a spurdle is no easy thing to duplicate and those who succeeded came away with a conversation piece and the pride of accomplishment.
More than 100 people turned out for Scottish night -- a number the folk festival association expects to increase as word-of-mouth advertising goes out. f"We hope to draw the community in this way," says Linda Groft of Arlington's Visual and Performing Arts Department, which helps sponsor the festival series, "and we hope to give the folk community a chance to try their skills."
Groft is responsible for lining up festival leaders, a job she says "never stops. I'm always talking to people about it, asking if they know anyone, visiting craft shows, and art shows and country fairs, looking for talent." Currently, she is looking for Egyptian and African groups to fill out the schedule. The remaining "Twelve Nights" are as follows:
Nov. 19, Turkey; Dec. 3, Greece; Dec. 17, Phillipines; Jan. 7, Africa; Jan. 21, Hungary; Feb. 4, Ireland; Feb. 18, Mexico; March 4, Egypt; March 18, Americana.
"Around the World in Twelve Nights," at the Gunston Arts Center Cafeteria, 1700 S. Lang St., in Arlington, every first and third Wednesday of the month at 8 p.m. Admission is $1.