Kenley John, Shortmus Productions, and Shacomba Phipps

Carnival Costumes and Dance
Baltimore, Maryland


Carnival is a traditional festive season that occurs in the weeks leading up to the Lenten season, often culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten period. (The word Carnival comes from the Latin for "farewell to meat," as many people mark the Lenten season by abstaining.) Celebrated throughout the transatlantic world, Carnival is perhaps most popular in New Orleans, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands in the Caribbean. It dates back to enslaved people on French plantations in the Caribbean in the 1800s who celebrated “Playing Mas”—or masquerade—as part of a beloved pre-Lenten tradition. Today, in many Caribbean communities, the socially liberating celebration of Carnival is a national obsession, with participants spending the better part of the year in preparation for this multiday celebration.

One of the festival's key traditions involves the making of elaborate, sculptural costumes, constructed out of both natural and manmade materials. While the casual observer might view the costumes, the large steel drum bands, the celebratory street parades, and other Carnival mainstays as simple revelry, these crafts are actually fiercely competitive, as costume makers vie to outperform one another and gain the status of “top costume.” 

Carnival costume maker Kenley “Shortmus” John hails from the island of St. Vincent, situated between St. Lucia and Grenada in the Caribbean Sea. After moving to Baltimore, he founded Shortmus Productions, a performing arts group that constructs more than 100 costumes from scratch each year for Caribbean-style carnival celebrations across the country, including the annual CaribeFest in Virginia Beach. "My costumes symbolize the beauty of life in the tropics," says John in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. "My costumes are an expression of ... our cultural heritage. It tells the story of who we are and where we're from."


Another distinct aspect of Carnival celebrations are stilt walkers, sometimes called “Mocko Jumbie” or “Moko Jumbies.” Writer Katherine Brooks explains: “The term ‘moko jumbies’ combines what many have interpreted as a name for an African deity, Moko, and the West Indian word for ‘spirit,’ jumbie. Taken together, the two concepts have amounted to a centuries-old art form consisting of extravagant costumery and gravity-defying dance, in which individuals mime the movements of a towering, protective god.” Baltimorean Shacomba Phipps is a stilt walker whose grandfather brought the tradition from Nigeria to the island of St. Thomas. Phipps and his crew perform on 13-foot stilts, cavorting as spirits who strike fear into the hearts of evil-doers.

Gankhuyag Natsag

Mongolian Mask Making
Arlington, Virginia

Photo by: Pat Jarrett

Photo by: Pat Jarrett

The tsam is a Buddhist ritual performed by dancers wearing elaborate costumes and masks. It was introduced to Mongolia in the eighth century, when the Indian saint Lovon Badamjunai sanctified the first Tibetan Buddhist temple. The tsam is a secret and subtle ritual, the meaning of which is often known only to those who perform it. In the 1930s, the Communist government in Mongolia banned the tsam, along with other religious displays. It has since been revived by a number of Mongolian artists, particularly Gankhuyag “Ganna” Natsag, a mask maker and visual artist who was born in Ulaanbaatar. Ganna's parents, famous masters of traditional Mongolian handcrafts, introduced him at an early age to the fine art of making dance masks for the tsam. He now lives in Arlington, where he helps to keep the tsam tradition alive in the city’s growing Mongolian community. Ganna is a prolific artist whose ritual masks and costumes have been exhibited all over the world. He recently helped curate the exhibition Genghis Khan: Bring the Legend to Life at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Ganna dreams of creating a World Peace Pagoda in Mongolia and met with the Dalai Lama in 2014 to receive his support for the project. He has passed on the tradition of mask making and the accompanying dance to his children, Zanabazar and Maral Gankhuyag.

Sochietah Ung

Cambodian Costume Making
Washington, D.C.

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

In the years between 1975 and 1979, the Maoist-inspired radical group, the Khmer Rouge, committed horrific acts of genocide in Cambodia, attempting to collectivize Khmer socioeconomic operations, destroy the traditional family unit, and outlaw local religious practices. The Khmer Rouge also targeted the Khmer’s traditional arts and culture. Among those artistic expressions most targeted was the remarkable tradition of Cambodian costumed dance and opera. Khmer classical dance can be traced to the Angkor Empire (802-1432 AD). The dance postures and costumes that comprise contemporary practice have their roots in images of dancers carved on ancient temples, and are modeled after traditional Angkorean dress.

Perhaps the most dazzling elements of the dance costumes are the crowns. Male and female character crowns are multi-tiered spires that resemble the top of Buddhist shrines symbolizing Mount Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe. They are adorned with jewels and rosettes on springs that sparkle with the slightest head movement. Wings surround the ears and a crescent-shaped diadem, framing the face, distinguishes female from male crowns.

Sochietah Ung migrated to Washington, D.C., in 1979, and soon made contact with a Virginia-based dance troupe led by master teachers Phuong Phan, Moly Sam, and Sam-Ouen Tes. They intended to perform a Cambodian opera story and, remembering that Ung’s grandfather had been an opera singer in Cambodia, they asked him for help in making the costumes. Thus began his career as a Cambodian costume, crown, and mask maker. Ung’s costumes became highly valued in both the United States and Cambodia, including by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, the premiere dancer of Cambodia’s Royal Dance Troupe during the 1960s. While on tour in the U.S. in 1985, she wore one of Ung’s crowns and told him, “You have fate. You were born to do this job.” Ung is dedicated to teaching his costuming craft, as well as traditional dance, to students young and old, within and outside the Cambodian community.

Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon Boyd

Oyster Shucking Champions
Middlesex County

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

For communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, the oyster fishery was perhaps the largest and most influential industry from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men and women employed by the industry worked a variety of jobs, from boat cook, captain, and crew, to shore-based scow gangs and shuckers. Shucking in particular provided many employment opportunities for African Americans throughout the Chesapeake region. Sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon Boyd, whose parents met while working in one of the many small oyster houses that dotted the Northern Neck coastline, are two of the top shuckers in the world, each capable of deftly opening two dozen oysters in less than three minutes. Though the oyster industry has declined since the mid-1990s, shucking remains a highly competitive sport. Deborah and Clementine have each won the prestigious Virginia Oyster Shucking Competition, held annually at the Urbanna Oyster Festival, and the National Oyster Shucking Championship in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where they earned the right to compete in the International Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland. The two sisters have battled it out in six epic contests on the Virginia Folklife Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival, with Clementine pulling off the upset in the first match, Deborah taking the next three, and Clementine winning the next two.

Clyde Jenkins

Colonial Dress Traditions, Heirloom Apples, Apple Grafting, and Basket Making
Stanley, Virginia

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Clyde Jenkins grew up in an old homestead in the Shenandoah Mountains in Page County that his family has inhabited for generations. Working the land, he has derived many skills from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries including basket making and heirloom apple growing.

Before the last half of the twentieth century, a wide variety of apples were grown regionally, with apple types grown according to the varying soil, weather, and habitat conditions across the United States. The advent of a national market, driven by the development and consolidation of supermarket chains, has reduced the number of available apple varieties to a dozen or so that keep well, respond well to extensive spray programs, and have an attractive and uniform outer skin. Much of the flavor that our ancestors cherished in apples has been sacrificed. The old regional varieties have become difficult, if not impossible, to find—and some have disappeared entirely. Clyde is an expert apple grower, dedicated to finding the most richly flavored fruits available that will grow well in central and western Virginia. One of his specialties is grafting, which describes any of a number of techniques in which a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree. Grafting is useful for more than reproduction of an original cultivar. It is also used to repair injured fruit trees or for combining an established tree with one or more different cultivars. The Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans all practiced grafting, and it remains a valuable and widely-used horticultural method.

In addition to being an authority on apple varieties, Clyde is also a brilliant basket maker, relying mainly on white oak strands he weaves together. The traditional skill of making baskets from white oaks is hundreds of years old, involving an in-depth study of the grain structure of the tree. Each white oak tree behaves differently, so basket makers must work with hundreds of trees to gain an intimate understanding of the nuances of the wood.

Clyde also has amassed a collection of ceremonial dress and costuming accessories from the Colonial and Civil War periods. Sticking with the 2018 Virginia Foklife Area theme of masquerade, he will be displaying these costumes as well as adorning himself in authentic Colonial period attire.

Frances Davis

Fried Apple Pie Making
Rocky Mount, Virginia

Known as “Fried Apple Pies,” “Dried Apple Pies,” or even

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Known as “Fried Apple Pies,” “Dried Apple Pies,” or even “Fried Dried Apple Pies,” these locally made pies seem to have a ubiquitous presence throughout Southwest Virginia, appearing on the counters and shelves of country stores, gas stations, and community festivals. The defining characteristic of the pie is its intense flavor, accomplished through the use of dried apples rehydrated through a long simmering process with brown sugar. While each community likely stakes a claim for one of its local pie makers, Frances Davis, of Rocky Mount, takes the title as the ultimate “Fried Apple Pie Lady.” Her delicious fried-dough pies have been featured at festivals around the state, including the National Folk Festival.

Frances was one of six children born to a sharecropping family. She learned to cook from her mother, and by the age of twelve was responsible for cooking for her entire family, as well as caring for other children too young to go to the fields. “I had to get up each morning around four, get the fire started to heat the house, and then be sure to have three full meals ready when the grownups came in from the field. Honestly, I didn’t really have a life as a child, because I had a big responsibility.” This responsibility led Frances to become one of the most respected and creative home chefs in the region. “You had to be very resourceful,” she told us. “You had to learn to work with what you had.”