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Small Idaho town becomes global village during folk festival

For the past 11 years, the residents of Rexburg, Idaho, have transformed their city into a global village for two weeks each summer. The distance between cultures has grown closer year by year as people from countries throughout the world have made their way to this eastern Idaho community for the Idaho International Folk Dance Festival. Because of the many Latter-day Saints who serve as host families, a better understanding of the Church has spread throughout the world because of the cultural exchange.

This year's festival, July 27-Aug. 4, drew nine teams and more than 300 dancers from Argentina, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Macedonia, The Netherlands, Romania, Russia, South Korea and the United States.Donna Benfield, executive director of the dance festival and the local chamber of commerce, said organizers are well aware of the contribution provided by Latter-day Saints, as well as the Church-owned Ricks College where most events were held.

"We wouldn't be able to put on the type and style of festival we have without Ricks College," she said. The opening ceremonies, that drew more than 4,000 spectators, were held at Viking Stadium and nightly performances were held in the Hart Auditorium.

She surmises the greatest value of the festival is the increased understanding of cultures that is given to both foreign dancers and local residents. As an example, she pointed to a personal relationship she developed with a dance team member from China a few years ago. "I now say I have a sister in China and she has a sister in America," she said.

After living in the Benfield home for two weeks, the Chinese woman came to see the similarities between the values of the two peoples. Sister Benfield explained, "She told me one day, `Your family is most important to you, my family is most important to me. You don't smoke, I don't smoke. You don't drink, I don't drink.' "

Sherry Bratsman, whose husband, Brent, serves as a bishop in nearby Sugar City, Idaho, said the international dancers are often intrigued by the Mormon religion and culture. Two years ago members of the Hungarian team requested to sing at their ward. "There were a lot of teary eyes that day because of the love we feel for these people," she said. "It doesn't matter where they come from, there is always love."

Sister Bratsman added that hosting dancers for nine years has changed her family's life. "We used to be just two people who lived our little lives in Sugar City, Idaho. Now we have worldwide interests. We worry about these people, and we want them to be OK. They are as close to us as dear friends."

Ricks College Pres. Steven D. Bennion explained that the college has been committed to the festival since the event's inception. Each year, the Church-owned school opens its facilities and provides skilled professionals in everything from sound and lighting to cooking for the international food fair.

"I think it's a wonderful thing to help foster understanding between different cultures," Pres. Bennion said. "The community supports Ricks College all year long. This is one way that we in turn can say thank you to the community."

The roots of the entire festival can be traced back to a time when a Ricks folk dance group was performing at a similar festival in Europe. Team directors returned home with the idea of establishing an Idaho festival. The Rexburg Chamber of Commerce, which was looking to increase tourism, embraced the idea. During the festival's history, 90 teams and about 2,500 dancers have come to Rexburg representing 41 countries.

Even the city of Rexburg has gotten involved with an additional cultural exchange. Mayor Nile Boyle noted that Rexburg adopted a sister city in former East Germany. The people of Rexburg and Rudolstadt, Germany, have enjoyed visiting each other during the past few years.

The cities chose one another partially because they both sponsor dance festivals each year. As an expression of their continuing friendship, the American Folk Dancers from Ricks College, which represented the United States in this year's Rexburg festival, performed in Rudolstadt Aug. 7 while on tour through Germany and Hungary.