BYU students find cultural identity through Living Legends

Shanoah Zendejas dances in Living Legends, a show that tells a lively and inspiring story of Native American, Latin American and Polynesian cultures. The show takes the audience through a performance of the pride cycle from the Book of Mormon. (BYU Photo)

BYU’s dance group Living Legends will celebrate Latin American, Native American and Polynesian cultures through a colorful display of song and dance on March 23.

“They represent those three cultures, but they have traveled to over 50 countries all over the world,” said Janielle Christensen, the group’s artistic director. “Any place this group has gone they have been incredibly well-received because they are so unique, and there is such a powerful variety of culture, feeling, music and rhythms.”

The show takes the audience through the pride cycle of the Book of Mormon, showing the seasons of promise, plenty, prosperity, pride and rebirth, according to Christensen.

Christensen said the entire show is focused on music and dance because the cultures have passed down their stories, values and familial traditions through their art, music and dance.

She said this year’s show will delight even those who have seen it before because it has a brand-new twist. This year the show follows a young man who is completely overwhelmed by the pace, stress and technology of the modern-day world.

“He is visited by his ancestors who take him through a journey of seasons until at the end he realizes the value and importance of putting aside the technology and listening to the voices and the stories of our ancestors to find out who we really are,” Christensen said.

Michael Geodel takes on a new role within the Living Legends show. (Jazz Yutung Cheng)

The president of the group and Native American section leader Michael Goedel plays the new role of the young man in the show.

He said the addition of this new main character allows the audience to feel a personal connection to the story and allows Goedel to share his own story because he identifies with the character.

“As a young boy growing up, I was shy and quiet and not all that confident in my abilities, so I would shy away from social activities and from sports,” Goedel said. “When I learned to do the hoop dance from my father when I was about 10 years old, I began to gain more self-confidence and began to break out of my shell.”

Goedel said the spirit of the show doesn’t only come from the talent of the dancers, but the personalities they bring to the stage as well.

The Living Legends performance isn’t a proselyting device, according to Christensen, but shows the history of the cultures, so people can identify with the story and be inspired as they see the cultures represented on stage.

“It helps the audience understand the consequences of their choices and of staying on a pathway of walking uprightly before the Great Spirit so that the promises that have been made to their people can come about,” Christensen said.

She said people of all ages and backgrounds can find the show entertaining.

“Three-year-olds have sat spellbound without moving,” Christensen said. “Grandmas and grandpas weep through it seeing their ancestors and knowing they are a part of ancestors soon to come and young people identify completely, especially now that we’ve included this young man struggling with the modern world.”

Young people see themselves living in a fast-paced world and recognize the need to stop and listen to the voices of their ancestors and learn who they are, according to Christensen.

She said the performers come from these cultures and carry with them the passion, the physical attributes, the knowledge and the family heritage to tell this story in a pure way.

“It’s just this rocking, high-powered, entertainment from these kids just dancing their hearts out with passion for their culture,” Christensen said.

Christensen said there are no performance majors in the group, but it does not stop the performers from dancing with complete excellence and professionalism.

“We just have young people who have grown up dancing powwows as young children or dancing in luaus on the beaches in Hawaii or dancing in Ballet Folklóricos in Mexico as they’re growing up,” Christensen said.

Kei Akoi Clark is the show’s Polynesian section leader and has performed for a number of professional dance companies.

“Being able to perform dances from cultures you’re directly connected to creates an energy on stage that can’t be replicated,” Clark said.

She said the show allows her to recognize the importance of remembering who she is and where she came from.

“We’ve all come from somewhere, some culture, some past,” Clark said. “And the show has helped me connect with my own cultural and spiritual identity.”

Celeste Contreras, the group’s Latin American section leader, said Living Legends has taught her what it means to be a child of God because of the love she feels from Heavenly Father through the show.

Contreras said she wasn’t always proud of her Mexican-American culture and felt like she didn’t fit in with those around her.

“At home, I knew who I was and where I came from,” Contreras said, “But I didn’t share that with anyone else because society did such a good job of bringing attention to the negatives of my culture instead of celebrating the good.”

Contreras said Living Legends has shown her the beauty in her heritage and taught her the importance of sharing it with others.

Clark said anyone can enjoy this celebration of cultures because everyone has questions about who they are supposed to be.

“I don’t really care if the audience remembers a single dance,” Clark said. “My only hope is that they remember how they felt.”

Not everyone can recognize what the feeling is but can know they felt something, according to Clark.

“As members of the LDS church, we know that the feeling our audience feels is the Spirit,” Clark said. “The Spirit uplifts, encourages and confirms to audience members of the truthfulness of the doctrine that we are all children of our Heavenly Father. We were all put on this journey to overcome different seasons of prosperity, pride and rebirth, and that we all have family and ancestors behind us, rooting for us.”

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