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Festival of Nations celebrates global dances, cuisine and crafts

Almost 45 years ago, Manoj Ajmera came to America from India to study for his master's degree at the University of Wisconsin.

But Ajmera has never forgotten his roots. When local ethnic groups put on a Festival of Nations in 1972, Ajmera took part, representing India as a dancer.

Today, Ajmera is chairman of the festival, and he delights in sharing not only his own culture, but that of more than 20 other countries.

It's like a small United Nations, he said. "It's the easiest way to get a glimpse of the world."

That first Festival of Nations, featuring just 10 or 12 countries, was held at Hudson Valley Community College. There was lots of dancing -- and lots of people.

"There was just such a response, we had to turn people away," Ajmera said.

The next year, the festival moved to the field house at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Since 1978, it has been held at the Convention Center at Empire State Plaza. This year's festival is Sunday, Oct. 26, from noon to 5 p.m.

The facilities aren't the only aspect of the festival that has grown. The countries that take part now showcase ethnic foods and arts and crafts in addition to dances. Attendees can sample such fare as Turkish dumplings called manti, Israeli challah bread pudding and Colombian corn pies with cheese.

The varied menu is one of the festival's top selling points, Ajmera said.

"You can try all that good food in one place," he said.

The participating countries are represented by local nonprofit groups.

Maria Ginter, the festival's treasurer, got involved in the Festival of Nations through her church, St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church in Troy. Members serve Greek dishes like moussaka (eggplant), pastitchio (pasta and meat) and baklava (phyllo, chopped walnuts, syrup, spices), and the church's youth dance group puts on its annual show at the festival.

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