The dance troupe milled around a stage entrance behind 23-year-old Saw Gary, in their traditional colors of red, white and blue.
The troupe was not an American-style dance group. It’s members are Karen, an ethnic minority from the Southeast Asian county of Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Gary and the dancers are refugees. On Saturday it was his role to introduce the troupe for a traditional New Year’s Eve dance at Unity in the Community, the largest multicultural event in the Inland Northwest.
“It’s a good thing to show our traditional culture and where we’re from so everybody can see the talent,” he said.
He added that Unity helps youth of all backgrounds get to know each other.
The event, held at Riverfront Park, consists of performances of all kinds from dancing to choirs to hoop jumping, as well as give-aways of school supplies and helmets to children. About 150 vendors cover the grass in front of the Clocktower, offering resources and information about everything from health care to education to political candidates.
Event Chairman Ben Cabildo has been involved with Unity in the Community since its beginning 16 years ago. Rev. Lonnie Mitchell of Bethel AME Church started it as a gathering for church members and East Central neighbors, according to Spokesman-Review archives. Since that time, Cabildo said there have been changes, not just with the event, but with diversity in Spokane.
“There’s a lot more multiethnic population in Spokane now,” he said.
The event takes seven months to plan. Cabildo said there are 25 people on his planning committee and 100 volunteers.
“This is advocacy for diversity because people enjoy being together and sharing their culture. It’s building community. When people work with others from different walks it builds a relationship of trust,” Cabildo said.
The event costs $20,000 to put on, that’s including the school supplies and helmets handed out. Like other charitable events, the recession hurt Unity donations, but their donors are loyal and the business community helped a lot, Cabildo said.
One of their goals is to institutionalize the event.
“We want it to be a signature event in Spokane, like Hoopfest and Pig Out in the Park and Bloomsday,” he said.