Category:International Folk Dance

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The BYU International Folk Dance company is one of the most sought after folk dance groups in the United States. Every year, festivals around the world clamor to book the folk dancers.

However, the folk dancers did not always enjoy the success they have today. The International Folk Dancers stemmed from modest beginnings in 1956 with a group of six couples and their square dance caller Mary Bee Jensen, who at the time was a faculty member in the College of Physical Education, a precursor to the future Dance department.

The International Folk Dancers got their start by performing at local ward activities and in an quarterly concert held in the Smith Fieldhouse. These concerts would be the predecessor to the popular Christmas Around the World show founded in 1960 that now occur in the Marriott Center every December.

The program blossomed with Jensen's devotion and tenacity. "I just loved what I was doing, so I just thought, 'Get out of my way, let's go,'" says Jensen, whose vision for the program was grand and whose commitment to making it happen even grander.

Over time she won supporters throughout the university as she cultivated a program of professional dancers and proper young adults. "They called it the Mary Bee Jensen finishing school," Jensen recalls. "They had to know protocol."

And they have had many opportunities to use their etiquette. The International Folk Dancers toured regionally and nationally almost from the beginning. But it wasn't until 1964 that they received an invitation to perform abroad. An organization called People-to-People asked Vytautas Beliajus—a well-known folk dancer and founder of the folk dance publication Viltis Magazine—to recommend a U.S. team to participate in an upcoming festival in Denmark. He recommended BYU.

"In [previous] all-nationality festivals held throughout Europe, the United States never was represented. . . . I decided that the only group worthy to represent the United States would be the Brigham Young group," Beliajus later said (interview with Gary Hopkinson, March 1964, quoted in Charles W. West, "A History of Folk Dancing at Brigham Young University" [master's thesis, BYU, 1970], pp. 98–99).

The BYU folk dancers got the invitation and headed to Denmark to perform American folk dance in the prestigious International Folk Festival. The dancers made a complete European tour, spending three months in Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Belgium.

However, they didn't have today's Performing Arts Management office to set up venues and handle publicity; they didn't have funding from the university; they didn't even have a complete itinerary when they got on the plane. But they had Mary Bee. She took out a loan to pay for the tour, and the team earned back the money doing performances when they returned to the United States. While on tour Jensen was busily calling ahead to set up performances in the next towns and countries they planned to visit. Jensen also used the time abroad to research costumes and dances to make their own international repertoire more authentic.

In the end, the tour was a success. Up until then the group had met one of its goals—"educating American people about European dance," as Jensen wrote in her official trip report—but the tour enabled them to meet another: "educating the European people about our American folk dance" (quoted in West, p. 99).

That cultural exchange has grown over the years along with BYU's folk dance program. Jensen retired in 1985, and today her legacy is the largest program of its kind in the United States. Each semester hundreds of students participate in about two dozen folk dance classes. The International Folk Dance Ensemble, which tours internationally, is backed up by a second team that tours the Wasatch Front and by three class teams that join the other teams for Christmas Around the World. There is also a folk music ensemble, Mountain Strings, which provides live accompaniment for much of the show.

Now, instead of frantically calling ahead to arrange the next performance, the folk dancers frantically juggle requests. "This group is always on the top of every festival's list when they are looking for a United States group," says Rex E. Burdette, the U.S. delegate to Conseil International des Organisations de Festivals de Folklore et d'Arts Traditionnels, an organization that holds international folk festivals worldwide. "Anywhere I travel in the world, it is always only a matter of time before the Brigham Young folk dancers come up in the conversation. Brigham Young University and their folk dancers set the standard for all other groups."

Since 1964 the BYU Folk Dance Ensemble has traveled around the world representing BYU and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The student performers have been the United States representatives in international festivals in places like Haifa, Israel, France, England and Korea. They were also featured at the Seoul and Salt Lake City Olympics.

Directors of the Ensemble include Mary Bee Jensen and Edwin G. Austin, Jr..

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