Middle Eastern acts featured at International Festival

WORTHINGTON -- Celebrating diversity is what Worthington's International Festival is all about, and its organizers have come up with an amazingly diverse selection of entertainment to support that theme. The festival begins Friday evening and con...

WORTHINGTON -- Celebrating diversity is what Worthington's International Festival is all about, and its organizers have come up with an amazingly diverse selection of entertainment to support that theme. The festival begins Friday evening and continues into Saturday with a full slate of singing, dancing and even a bit of Scandinavian humor thrown in.

"One of the challenges each year is to try to get something new and fresh, yet be conscious that people want to come back and see some of the same people because they were so good the previous year," said Leann Enninga, International Festival committee chairwoman. "There are a great many we would like to have back because they were so awesome, but we don't want it to be the same old, same old, so we consciously work at that."

New to the entertainment schedule this year is Middle Eastern dancing and music. On Friday night, Maqam, a Middle Eastern musical group, will perform, as will Jawaahir, the only Middle Eastern dance company based in the Midwest. Jawaahir, meaning jewel in Arabic, is associated with the Cassandra School, which currently offers 29 classes a week in various forms of Middle Eastern dance.

"Belly dance is the term people use for what people see in the clubs, but we do much more than that," explained Eileen Goran, one of the company's founding members. "That's sort of Egyptian nightclub dancing, contemporary dance women do at parties and for each other. In addition, we do traditional dances of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt. Traditional dancing looks nothing like belly dancing, although some moves overlap, and some of the vocabulary is the same. Just as in America club dancing in New York looks different than dancing in New Orleans or out west, the dance from each region (of the Middle East) is pretty distinctive, mainly because the music is different."

Although she's not of Middle Eastern descent, Goran, a native of New York City, became interested in this type of dancing after studying other forms, including time at the famed Martha Graham school.


"When I moved out to Minnesota, I had looked for the best teacher around, and a friend of mind suggested she wanted to take belly dancing at community ed. It's just an amazing style of dance," she said.

The Jawaahir ensemble will dress in traditional costumes and perform to traditional music, educating their audience in the process.

"That's a large part of our mission," Goran explained. "We will have someone speaking before each piece, introducing the group, each type of dance, where it's from, whatever we feel is important."

For ethnic education about a culture that hits a little closer to home, the International Festival committee has engaged the talents of LeRoy Larson and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble.

"We've been recording since 1974," explained Larson, who lives in Lakeland, across the border from Hutchinson, Wis. "There are three of us. We play a variety of instruments and play a lot of fun music -- Scandinavian dance music, folk songs. We do some humor, too, when the situation is right, when there are Scandinavians around that can understand it. We have a good time and do a lot of traveling."

Larson is a former public music school teacher who now works as a substitute teacher whenever his performance schedule allows. He has extensively researched Scandinavian music, particularly Norwegian music in Minnesota, which became his doctorate dissertation at the University of Minnesota. He plays the banjo, guitar and mandolin and sings. Mel and Art, the other two gentlemen who make up the ensemble, play accordion and guitar.

"Art and I both do vocals and some of the comedy parodies," Larson detailed. "The comedy tradition is in some of the dialect songs of the Scandinavians. Those are usually very humorous songs. Some are parodies, some are original."

The Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble's program has a heavy emphasis on Norwegian-American and Swedish-American musical styles, which are difficult to characterize, according to Larson, although they'll also throw in a few German polkas for good measure.


"We are dealing with the people living here, cater to them," he explained. "They love to dance, and the music brings back memories from childhood, of their parents and grandparents. The dancers know, when they hear us, they know we have the old style they remember, what they grew up with. It's different than what's played in Scandinavia today. We grew up playing dances. In fact, that's how we started playing. It's a lighter style than the German style, whatever that means."

The two days of entertainment at the International Festival will also feature an African-American storyteller, a one-man band, African Children's Dancers, Veracruz Dancers, Karibuni (a group that performs African and Jamaican music), a Lao dance group, Karen-Burmese entertainment, Mexico Lindo (Mexican folkloric dance group), Salsabrosa (Latin music) and the country and bluegrass stylings of Maceylyn Rossow, an up-and-coming singer from Lakefield.

The aim is to have something that will appeal to everyone and to bring new people down to see what the festival is all about, Enninga emphasized.

"I'm always excited to see the people who come every year. It's great to see them come back year after year, and there are some real stalwarts about coming out to see it," she said. "But as much as anything, we want to say to people, if you haven't checked it out, you're missing a really good deal, and I mean that in every way. It's fun, relaxing, and my goodness, it's free, because of the support of the community. We are basically operating on the goodwill of the businesses and individuals who help to support the festival, and the best part is obviously they do, proving that by digging in their pockets.

"It says a lot for the community, shows that people consider the cultural values to be an important part of what we are and who we are going to become. ... We have a lot to be proud of with the diversity in this community. We don't always recognize how positive that can be for our community, a positive thing living with us as neighbors."

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