An International Stage: Where Will Your Journey Take You?

Their puffy sharavary whipping around them, agile men with cores of steel kick their legs then drop to the floor. They yell. The spring back up chanting “Україна.” They fall again. Others soar above the ground. Women surround them in rainbows of red, white, blue, green, and yellow — while the remaining men prepare for their next move, flourishes of dance representing a profound cultural identity. Willing their muscles through the fatigue, the goal for all involved is to finish strong, with a confidence befitting this proud tradition. The audience applauses, legs are finally able to take their long-awaited rest in the hopes to have made Ukraine proud. The hopak is the national dance of Ukraine. But this is not Ukraine.

On stage is Brigham Young University’s International Folk Dance Ensemble, and it’s not just Ukrainian culture on display. A world of folk tradition fills the auditorium. Travelers from around the world begin their journey to Utah at The Mighty Five national parks by way of the capital, Salt Lake City. Utah is known for its outdoor recreation. Less known is the remarkable display of world cultures in an unexpected place. Suddenly, your journey out to Utah may just be bringing you back home.

Stirring Patriotic Enthusiasm

At the conclusion of the Folk Dance show called “Journey,” Director of the International Folk Dance Ensemble, Jeanette Geslison was approached by a Ukrainian woman who said, “You made me feel at home when I watched Hopak … you made me so proud of my home country.”

Says Geslison, “That’s really my hope that if someone comes from one of those cultures, we can make them proud of their cultural representation.”

Authenticity matters.

Established by Mary Bee Jensen in 1956, the International Folk Dance Ensemble consists of 14 men and 14 women, all full-time BYU students who have gone through a vigorous audition process in order to be on this world-touring team.

That’s really my hope that if someone comes from one of those cultures, we can make them proud of their cultural representation

Once making the ensemble, students perform dances that represent different cultures around the world. These dances represent a wide range of traditions, religious beliefs, and identity. These are things, according to Geslison, that they stand for in their culture. The ensemble represents China, Canada, Ireland, Hungry, India, Slovakia, Indonesia, Ukraine and the United States.

And Geslison adds, “Some dances represent ancient traditions and rituals some dances represent just simply a fun tradition, a harvest or agricultural kinds of purposes … dances that have been handed down from one generation to the next and are being perpetuated even today.”

Director of the International Folk Dance Ensemble, Jeanette Geslison. Photo: Tyler Smith
Director of the International Folk Dance Ensemble, Jeanette Geslison. Photo: Tyler Smith

Geslison, a native of Denmark who moved to Utah for her own schooling as a freshman at BYU, proceeded to say “It makes me so happy when someone can come in and say they felt proud and that we represented their country so well…and ha[ve] stirred their patriotic enthusiasm.”

Journey: A Wonderful Fit for Utah

Utahns are known for their enthusiasm for the family unit — both living and deceased — largely because of the emphasis placed on family by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s also the foundation for one of the world’s premier genealogical resources at the Family History Library, near the Salt Lake City headquarters of the church, and open to the public.

As a result, Geslison believes that “people here in Utah have a … sharp awareness of the people of the world because there is such a great interest, here in Utah specifically, in family history and genealogy... People are interested in knowing where they came from and who their ancestors were.”

She also notes that the Beehive State has had a special love for dance since the beginning — since the moment of settling.

“When Brigham Young brought the first people here to Utah, one of the first buildings built was the Social Hall. They believed very strongly that people should have wholesome recreational activity, and…really really emphasized and encouraged people to dance and play music. And so I feel that our group, in representing different cultures around the world, is such a great fit in a state that from the very beginning…has valued dance and music.”

Though this team has traveled through the world (including a Summer 2018 tour to Belgium, France, and Poland, and a Summer 2019 tour to China) the International Folk Dance Ensemble does not compete — different than many other world traveling dance groups.

Versions of “Journey” are performed throughout the year including in their annual Christmas Around the World performance held at BYU’s Marriott Center, in Provo’s Covey Center, in the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City, during a spring tour to various states, and an international tour during the summer months (to just name a few).

BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble
BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble

With ”Journey,” Geslison explained that the group has received “high recognition[s] from the C.OFF Organization here in the U.S. which is an organization [that falls under the umbrella] of UNESCO,” an organization that feels the importance of preserving cultural heritage and intangible heritage specifically.

That recognition matters, because one of the stated goals of their group is to preserve cultural heritage.

“For us to have the opportunity to perpetuate that tradition of encouraging dance and music as a wholesome recreational activity, and as a performing art, is a wonderful fit for Utah.”

Nothing to do in Provo? Well — That's not True

With two universities and many different types of world-cuisine restaurants, Geslison calls Provo an “international city.” She also states, “I believe that in our College of Fine Arts and Communication there are about 500 performances in a year, between music, theatre, and dance.

And so if someone says ‘there is nothing to do in Provo’ well — that’s not true, because there is plenty to come and see in the fine arts, just here at Brigham Young University.”

Other cultural events in the nearby areas include the Scandinavian festival in Ephraim every Memorial Day weekend, the Springville World Folk Fest during the last week in July, and the Summer Fest International Folk Dance festival held in Bountiful during the first week in August.

Visiting a State or National Park? Coming to see Salt Lake City? Whatever reason brings you on this journey to Utah, come home with Brigham Young University International Folk Dance Ensemble’s show Journey.

Camille Ensign

Camille Ensign is a Utah native currently studying Tourism at Brigham Young University in Provo. Some of her favorite things include traveling and dancing. She is the sixth of seven kids and enjoys spending time with her large extended family. She is currently a member of the BYU Folk Dance Ensemble with a background heavily involving Irish Dance. She plans to attend graduate school and continue to work for the great state of Utah.

Utah Valley

Provo and Brigham Young University

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Tickets and Information

Want to learn more?
Tickets various between $10–22
Advanced ticket purchase is recommended.
https://dance.byu.edu/category/dance-groups/international-folk-dance-ensemble/