Somerset Community College’s annual International Festival is always well-attended, but John Fryman made for an especially “hot” ticket on Thursday.
As crowds of students — college, high school — sat riveted on the SCC lawn just off Monticello Street, Fryman twirled a fire poi, a set of swinging weights that are lit on fire and twirled as a sort of dance, imported from the Maori culture of New Zealand. The danger and beauty of the art led to one top-notch show — and a mob of kids surrounding Fryman afterward hoping he’d sign his autograph somewhere on their skin.
“It was unbelievable to him,” said Elaine Wilson, SCC’s Director for Cultural Diversity. “He doesn’t expect that kind of thing.”
It just helped add up to what Wilson called “probably the best” International Festival yet in seven years. Around 400 people were in attendance, she said, with 250 youth from all three Somerset Independent city schools and even more from the county.
“We had a lot of extra community people who don’t normally come,” she said. “It’s probably the best one I’ve done as far as variety of activities, and as far as there being a lot of people there. I thought it was great.”
Ideal weather — sunny, not too chilly — helped and allowed functions to go outside. Last year, Lexington’s Big Maracas Band had to perform indoors, leading to a somewhat subdued reception. This year, they took the stage outside, allowing for a larger, more spread-out crowd and praise from SCC staff as one of the year’s most captivating feature presentations, showcasing the music of Hispanic culture.
Fryman was another outdoor hit. He’s been twirling the poi for about six months, after been shown the art by a friend from Idaho, and he’s been practicing it ever since. He noted that the Maori would traditionally use the poi to celebrate before or after a war. On Thursday, however, the poi was used to bring people together — in amazement.
And is it as dangerous as it looks? “It is actually very dangerous,” he said. “You want to start out not with fire, but some practice poi before you work your way up to fire.” He laughed as he noted that the activity fit his “ADHD personality perfect(ly).”
Education was also a big focus, as students and festivalgoers were introduced to the customs of people from all around the world and information about those areas. A stroll through the Student Commons facility would lead one past numerous booths celebrating nations many in Pulaski County might not know much about.
Natalie Winstead, an employee of the SCC Admission’s Office, was born in Japan, and manned a display showcasing that country’s culture. The ability to do so has made the International Festival particularly meaningful to her.
“I absolutely love it,” she said, referencing the way the festival “involves the community through different events.”
SCC Communications Professor Mark Searcy helped stage a chopstick relay race for young children, wherein the kids would try to pick up tiny objects with the Chinese eating utensil and run them across the room.
Searcy said there there’s evidence provided by scientific studies that chopstick use not only improves motor skills, but that in turn can helped ward off the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“You don’t just learn about another culture, but you learn a new skill,” he said, “and the kids have fun too.”
It’s the education that really connects all the fun and festivities with the ultimate mission of SCC — making this area smarter and more prepared for a world that is increasingly globally-minded.
“Mr. (Boyd) Randolph (Superintendent of Somerset Schools) was telling somebody that he liked how the festival brought the curriculum in line with what they wanted to teach the students in schools,” said Wilson. “It gave them a good visual idea of what’s going on with the different cultures. I think that’s one of the biggest compliments we’ve had.
“We provide schoolchildren with something they can not only use in the classroom but in other places they go,” she added. “It helps individuals’ lives expand because of the different cultures they learn about.”