Birds of international feather flock together at UND
Sold-out Feast of Nations draws 1,000 for jubilant night of fashion, culture, food, music and dance
As the site of the 61st annual Feast of Nations, the Alerus Center on Saturday night was the place to see and be seen in Grand Forks.
Like royalty from around the world, hundreds of beautifully adorned guests — in swirling ribbon skirts and elaborate embroidered sashes, brightly colored headwraps, kilts and stocking flashes — crowded the red carpet to pose for the cameras and the memories.
The theme of this year’s event, co-hosted by UND and its student International Organization, was “Birds of Nations: An Evening of Culture and Diversity.”
“This is a great experience not just for young and old, but for the entire Grand Forks community,” said Rajrup Mitra, an Electrical Engineering doctoral student and president of the UND International Organization. “Even in the severe cold, people come decked out in their best attire. They love the grandeur of the event and the chance to experience cultures from all across the globe.
“You can see on their faces all the emotions. They are happy. They are excited, amazed and thrilled. Our show is about glorifying and celebrating diversity together.”
And this year, UND Events & Project Coordinator Monica Evavold said they celebrated in record fashion.
“All 1,000 tickets sold out almost two weeks before the event,” Evavold said. “Feast of Nations has sold out in the past, but the tickets seemed to be flying out the door even faster this year.”
First organized in 1961 by a small group of students who wanted to share their culture over a home-cooked meal, the Feast of Nations has continued to grow in popularity. Today, it’s a marquee event that draws visitors regionwide.
All eyes on fashion and flair
Like International Organization Advisor Courtney Davis, many attendees say they love to come to see all the people showing off the traditional fashions of their culture.
“I have so many fond memories of the Feast of Nations going back to my undergraduate years … but my favorite part is always seeing the fashion,” Davis said. “It gives everyone the opportunity to proudly represent themselves, their culture and their heritage.”
Dean Sansburn of Grand Forks agreed: “The people-watching tonight is great. That’s for sure. It’s better than an airport terminal.”
Though his own tartan kilt was in the American Dream pattern, Sansburn said he was doing his level best to represent his Scottish heritage. His outfit was complete with sporran (purse), knee-high blue socks and red flash to represent his late mother whose favorite bird was the cardinal.
“Flash?” another guest inquired. Yes, he explained, that’s what they call the decorative fabric swatches that hang from your sock garters hidden below your cuff.
For freshman Nursing student Flora Brown, the Feast of Nations was a first, so she decided to go all out for her dramatic entrance. Her glittering lilac-and-gold dress — with shoulder swoop and mini bustle — came custom-made from Ghana.
“I’m very excited for the whole experience tonight,” Brown said. “I’ve heard this is a great event that’s very inclusive and has cultures from all over. For me, I’m just excited to see what Feast of Nations is all about.”
Soon, she and others would find out as they weaved their way through a corridor of international flags to reach the grand ballroom. Inside was a large stage, rock-concert lighting and 100 tables draped in white linens.
Atop the tables stood sparkling globes, 3-foot candelabras and golden centerpieces overflowing with white hydrangeas and sprays of peacock, hawk and other feathers.
Davis said the student leaders had selected the feathers to represent their homelands.
Before the dinner hour, guests were invited to visit the cultural tables lining the north wall, where students enthusiastically shared stories about their countries’ customs.
For instance, married couple Farishta Rahman and Tanzim Jim Hassan from Bangladesh — now earning master’s and doctoral degrees, respectively, in Mechanical Engineering at UND — explained how the traditional woman’s dress, or saree, requires a 6-yard-length of fabric so it can wrap around the woman and still have enough left to luxuriously drape over her arm.
And if it’s a fancy saree, such as the silky silver model Rahman was wearing, it also can take up to nine months to hand-sew the intricate pattern of beading.
“We want to represent our country and also get to know about other cultures,” Rahman said about the evening. “We want to enjoy all the cultures and get to know people a bit.”
The couple had just moved here this fall, but they found plenty to learn at the cultural tables alone. Besides Bangladesh, there were displays for China, East Africa, Italy, Japan, Korea, Laos, Nepal, Nigeria and Norway.
Moving your feet to the beat
When it came time for the dinner and program, guests were in for an eye-popping show of music and dancing. Fifteen groups — including some professional performers from Winnipeg’s Folklorama — took to the stage, and sometimes, the floor.
One Brazilian dancer dressed in very-high high heels and a feathered Vegas-style dress laughed and said she had trouble getting back to the stage because everyone in the audience wanted to keep dancing with her.
And at another point, the full house erupted into laughter and applause as the Caribbean Afro Dancers turned their backs to the audience and shook their hips to a rapid-fire beat.
The four-course meal highlighted delicacies from different countries. First, there was the lumpia appetizer (Philippines) — a deep-fried treat similar to an egg roll. Next came the Three Sisters Salad (U.S/Native American) — a bean, corn and tomato mix topped by a light and tangy dressing.
For an entree, guests feasted on either Chicken Rezala with Jasmine Rice (India/Bangladesh/Pakistan) or Wild Rice with Sweet Potatoes (U.S./Native American). The meal was topped off with a sweet and creamy couscous dessert called Chakiry (Liberia).
In his opening greeting, Mitra had encouraged everyone to take part in the fun, and it seemed they had taken his message to heart.
“We’re so excited and thankful you all joined us tonight for Birds of Nations,” he said. “Just as the migratory birds fly high and far with their gracious and audacious wings — voyaging across the globe and experiencing new lands — let us tonight experience culture and food from different corners of the world.
“I really hope this show will be the bluebird, or the harbinger of happiness for you.”
When the DJ cranked up the beat for the first raucous number of the after-hours party, Mitra got his wish as a thunderous, delighted crowd stormed the dance floor.