“BYU International Folk Dancers Celebrate 50 Years,” Liahona, July 2006, N6–N7
For 50 years, 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, they will take their performance to three countries they have never visited before—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Their repertoire this year consists of dances from 10 different countries.
At the end of February, the ensemble performed a 10-day tour in preparation for their annual summer traveling schedule. This summer they will perform in the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These countries, along with much of Eastern Europe, share a rich heritage of folk dancing. One traditional dance from the region, the hopak, has been in the IFDE repertoire for more than 30 years.
“The dance is exciting,” said Edwin G. Austin, the ensemble’s director. “The movement, the spins—it’s very acrobatic.”
“It’s hard,” said Eddie Cha, a dancer on the team. He describes various moves from the hopak: the duck-walk, where the men kick their feet while remaining in a seated crouch; or the four-man butterfly, where two-by-two, a pair will burst into the air over one another in a full split.
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 a much-sought-after group in international dance. But the purpose of their travel, he said, is twofold: to help people get acquainted with the Church and to strengthen Church members in their own countries.
Brother Cha can attest to this. He joined the team shortly after coming to BYU from his home in Seoul, Korea. He remembers a traditional fan dance the ensemble performed last year.
“The people from Korea loved it,” Brother Cha said.
The IFDE started in 1956 with just four to six 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 said those first worldwide tours not only shared in the folklore of the countries they traveled to, but they 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 explained.
Brother Austin danced with the group under Sister Jensen’s direction while he was a student at BYU. He also met his wife while they were both in the ensemble.
“Out of all our experiences at BYU, our participation with this group is the one that had the greatest impact on our lives,” Brother Austin said.
The group also has an impact on those it meets 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 this summer, because the Church is still relatively small in those countries.