By May D Quall
At first, it was scary to think about strangers from the other side of the world staying in our basement for a whole week. They seemed so...different. They smoked in the backyard, cooked food so spicy it was like lighting a fire on your tongue, and had names I could never pronounce quite right. They had accents I had never heard before, ate vegetables for breakfast, and drank coffee. Every morning of the week they stayed here, our house reeked of the bitter, caffeinated drink.
As weird as the situation was, my family loved the experience, as well as those three middle-aged Israeli men that lived in our basement for a week. We were a “host family” for the Idaho International Dance Festival, also known as Summerfest. They absolutely adored my little brother -- especially his red hair. They took pictures with him and showed them to the rest of the dance team they were traveling with like proud uncles.
The week of parties, swimming, and dance workshops flew by, and before I knew it, the night of the final showcase arrived.
"Are you sure you don't want to come?" my mom asked, putting her keys in her purse as she got ready to go.
"I don't know, Mom," I replied. I didn't feel like going out that night; I was exhausted from the eventful week I had. But as much as I wanted to stay, I had the feeling I'd later regret not going.
"I think you'll have fun," my mom insisted. "I’ve heard from all the people that were involved last year that the finale is absolutely incredible. We'll wait for you to get your shoes on."
My brain was having a mental tug-of-war.
Go. Stay home. Go. Stay home. Go. Stay Home?
"I'll go put on a nicer shirt," I sighed, heading to my room. I quickly threw on a pair of jeggings and pulled a nicer top over my head. Shoving on a pair of sandals, I grabbed a light jacket and raced to the kitchen, making it just in time.
When we arrived at the high school auditorium, there were lots of people there to see the gala. We chose floor seats, in the very back of the middle section. Settling in, we chatted for a while with my Aunt who was visiting us for the weekend.
When the lights flashed as a warning, darkness and an anticipated silence settled over the crowd as everyone made their way to their seats. Loud, upbeat music pulsed through the speakers. Dance teams from all over the world poured out of every door in the facility, making their way onto the stage.
Dancers from Poland, Israel, India, Columbia, Peru, and Cameroon clapped their hands and twirled across the stage in their vibrant costumes: tiny gold discs sewed precariously onto neon orange saris; stripes of red and green on skirts, having a dizzying effect when spun; intricate ribbons woven into long braids; fur vests and boots; plaid kilts, and countless other colors and patterns.
I sat at the very edge of my seat, smiling and clapping with everyone else.
The first dance by the Columbians was unforgettable. The women wore intricate, colorful skirts and an abundance of flowers in the hair. The men were dressed in flamboyant neckties and large, straw hats. The music started slowly, the lights low. The dancers woke up and began “working.” The girls washed clothes and gathered food while the men worked in the fields, hoeing and harvesting the crops. As the act progressed, groups of friends began to gather, until they were all dancing, having fun in the hot, Columbian sun.
Next, I was excited to see kids I knew walking on stage. They were part of the American Footworks dance team, who went to dance festivals all over the world each year. They performed an upbeat square-dance number with cowboy hats, impressive lifts, and plenty of "Yee-Haws!" Many also showcased their clogging skills -- their feet moved so fast they were almost a blur.
With each act, the lights became brighter, the costumes more colorful, and the crowd more energized. I kept thinking to myself, There’s no way the next number can top this, but every time, it did. I could only think of what the finale would be like. Before I knew it, the time had come for intermission.
“What do you think of it so far?” my Dad asked. “Are you glad you decided to come?”
“Glad?!” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe I thought about staying home; this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Intermission couldn’t end soon enough. Somehow, I made it through the agonizingly long line for the water fountain. As soon as I was satisfied, I raced back to my family and plopped down into the worn, red fabric covering the squeaky auditorium seat. My legs bounced with excitement, until the lights finally dimmed.
The second half of the show was even better.
The men staying with us from Israel performed a number resembling a wedding celebration. One woman wore a dress different from the others, indicating that she was the bride. Little, artificial, black curls hung from the “groomsmen’s” large hats. The women wore white dresses and danced in impossibly straight lines and clean formations.
Next came Japan. The youngest performer seemed about only seven, but the oldest looked like he could be at least 60. Tall teenage boys beat giant leather drums in perfect unison, and the kids hit their little wooden sticks together as they danced. Middle-aged men ran across the stage with large, heavy flags, easily three times their size. The swirled them and twirled them, each making a satisfying “flap, flap, flap,” sound as they were whipped around.
Following Japan were the Poles. One of the smaller teams, they only consisted of a few men and a few women. Poland put a unique twist on their performance by providing their own music. They used flutes and a violin to provide light, upbeat melodies. The women wore stroje ludowe, traditional Polish folk attire. They performed a series of slaps, claps, and turns that had everyone smiling and clapping along.
Finally, the finale came. The music poured out of the speakers so loudly I could feel the base vibrating in my bones. Lights of every color of the rainbow flashed and swung around the auditorium. Out of the back entrances, front doors, balcony seat exits, and stage curtains, came a flood of dancers. They were all tired and sweaty, but beaming. You could feel the happiness and energy radiating off each and every one of the dancers as they made their way to the stage. In theater, the finale is often paired with the bows. During the bows, the cast comes on in groups, with the leads almost always bowing last, getting the loudest cheers. In contrast, Summerfest ended the gala in a way that didn’t put any one country above another. The final dance included everyone. Each team performed some of their best tricks or traditional dance steps when it was their turn, and enthusiastically cheered for their fellow dancers when it wasn’t.
As the last notes of the music played, they all performed a simple set of moves in unison. Even if it was a few steps and easy turns, it left an impression on me. I had never seen something so simple be so powerful.
True, it may have looked a little silly with a bunch of people from all over the world, twirling and stomping, packed together on a small stage in Idaho like a chaotic, international smoothie.
But in a way, it wasn’t weird at all. In fact, it seemed almost...normal. Like everything was right where it was supposed to be. Artists of all ages, sizes, races, and backgrounds, sharing their ways of life with each other. No one worried about civil unrest, wars, or taxes. No one fighting or yelling or complaining. If world peace could be defined in a moment, that would be it.
Given that few people have the opportunity to see the unity of people of different backgrounds and cultures at such a young age, I am very lucky. Thanks to our small, humble city of Rexburg, Idaho, I was able to get that chance, and I’ve never forgotten it. When I was only twelve, I was able to witness something that now seems so rare and even nonexistent - people setting aside their beliefs, opinions, and prejudices to celebrate life together.