International Dancers Celebrate 50 Years

“International Dancers Celebrate 50 Years,” Ensign, June 2006, 77

International Dancers Celebrate 50 Years

For 50 years and in more than 50 countries, members of the Brigham Young University International Folk Dance Ensemble (IFDE) have performed as ambassadors of their school.

This year, celebrating a half century of dance from cultures around the world, the group will take its performance to three countries it has never visited before—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

At the end of February, the ensemble performed a 10-day tour in preparation for its annual summer traveling schedule. The repertoire this year consists of dances from 10 different countries.

The Baltic States, along with much of Eastern Europe, share a rich heritage of folk dancing. One traditional dance from the Baltic region, the hopak, has been in the IFDE repertoire for more than 30 years.

“The dance is exciting,” says Edwin G. Austin, the ensemble’s director. “The movement, the spins—it’s very acrobatic.”

After taking the hopak to the Baltic States, the ensemble will travel to Quebec, Canada, in response to a private invitation to an international dance festival. Brother Austin says the IFDE is one of the most sought-after groups in international dance. But the purpose of the ensemble’s travel, he says, is twofold: to help people get acquainted with the Church and to strengthen Church members in their own countries.

The IFDE started in 1956 with just a few couples, under the direction of founder Mary Bee Jensen. In 1964 Sister Jensen accompanied the ensemble on its first international tour—mortgaging her home to have the funds to do so. It was the first group of performing students from BYU to tour internationally. Today 30 of the ensemble’s 180 members are on the touring team.

Brother Austin succeeded Sister Jensen as the director of the ensemble—making him only the second director in its 50-year history. He says those first worldwide tours not only shared in the folklore of the countries visited but also helped to introduce the name of the Church in many places where it wasn’t well known. “Our group had the opportunity to travel to areas where the Church had not yet been recognized,” Brother Austin explains.

He says the group has an impact on those it encounters during its travels, leaving a distinct impression of standards and faith behind. Brother Austin is excited to take the ensemble into Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, where the Church is still relatively small.

Brigham Young University’s International Folk Dance Ensemble celebrates its 50th anniversary in June 2006.