BYU students shine as ambassadors of good will

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BUDAPEST, Hungary—The BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble said its first goodbyes Sunday night as it parted ways with performers from Hungarian folk dance teams, some of whom had become dear friends.

“It was amazing because we did sing to them ‘God be With You Till We Meet Again’—it was probably one of the more touching times we sang it,” said BYU dancer Emily Dance.

The BYU team and its Hungarian hosts exchanged gifts, hugs and well-wishes. One of the Hungarian organizers of a four-day festival here in Budapest told members of the BYU group she wanted her sons to grow up to be like them. After more than a week in Budapest, the BYU dance troupe packed its bags Monday and boarded a bus for Prague in the Czech Republic, where it will spend three nights before moving on to Croatia.

Members of the team from Provo have been given a strict, no-proselytizing rule; however, all go into touring with the knowledge they are examples and are being watched by those around them.

“We’re not there to be missionaries — all we’re trying to do is be examples of our values,” said Jonathon Wood, BYU folk ensemble artist manager. “But people can sense the spirit.”

Edwin G. Austin Jr., artistic director for the International Folk Dance Ensemble, said the BYU dancers and musicians are prepared to make a difference in spite of language or cultural barriers.

“They have a vision of what they can do to be good ambassadors to other countries,” Austin said.

Although discouraged from proselytizing, dancers and administrators alike have noticed the other ways in which the gospel is shared through their performances.

“I’ve seen people in the audience just be touched,” Wood said. “They will say things like, ‘There was just something about their eyes,’ or ‘There was something about the smile. It was so bright.’ ”

Less than one week into the tour the group already encountered similar feedback from a complete stranger.  After the BYU students left a Budapest Holocaust museum called the House of Terror last week, one of its security guards stopped Andrea Ferenc, an organizer of this year’s festival in Hungary, who accompanied the team to the museum. She shared her account with the BYU students while they were on the tour bus.

“He said, ‘They are very disciplined,’ ” Ferenc said, adding that he was also impressed by how nice the team looked in its matching attire and commented on the light they seemed to carry.

On the team’s last night in Hungary on Sunday, Ferenc also mentioned the unusually strong relationship they had formed with the Hungarian ensemble in such a short amount of time. BYU folk dancers said that is a result of the good lives they live.

“Our purpose is just to show who we are and shine the light of Christ,” said BYU dancer Tyler Walker.

Wood said a lot of art is challenging and dark, but the group of BYU students provides uplifting entertainment that is accessible to all audiences.

“I honestly believe it is the fact that on stage you’re seeing clean-cut, good men and women performing, not because they’re getting paid but because they love it,” Wood said.

Since they’ve been in Europe, BYU’s folk ensemble has kept pace with some top professional performing groups. What sets BYU students’ performances apart, however, is their conformity with BYU standards, which according to Andrew Sorber, band vocalist, guitarist and accordion player, is one of the magnetic aspects to their show.

“When you play this kind of music it’s always clean,” Sorber said. “It’s definitely supposed to show there’s something different here. It’s a high-quality show but there is something else going on.”

Alina Geslison, a fiddler for the band, said she is grateful for the opportunity to share the gospel through her musical talents.

“I’ve always enjoyed kind of being a missionary through music. I feel like these tours are like a mission for me because you’re an example,” Geslison said. “People are always watching.”

Many of these performers went into the tour with the goal of blessing the lives of those around them and sharing their testimonies through their talents in dance and music. Dancer Brandon Gassoway said his goal is to help audience members feel the spirit when he performs.

“You dance in a way that people can see the light of Christ when you perform,” Gassoway said.

In this way the dancers and musicians have been able to plant seeds of gospel truth in the lives of those they encounter on tour.

After a fireside last week at a local meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU performers heard from Rita Somfai, a BYU master’s of communications graduate from Hungary.  Through her calling as a public affairs representative for the Church and her career as an assistant to two members of the Hungarian Parliament, she has seen the good that can be done by exemplary members of the Church.

“They will love you for who you are and they will recognize the Lord,” Somfai told the BYU performers.

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