A legacy of diversity in BYU’s International Folk Dance Ensemble

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Mark and Jeanette Geslison, who have been teaching dance and music at BYU for over 20 years, worked together to put on their “Journey” International Folk Dance Ensemble concert this Friday, March 31, at the Covey Center for the Arts.

“Journey” gives the audience a taste of the world through experiencing the dance and music of people from around the globe, from Ukrainian hopak and American clogging to Irish hard shoe and beautiful Indian dances, to name a few.

For the Geslisons, folk dance and music have not only been an artistic journey, but have also played an important part in their personal journey.

“We actually met as students here at BYU,” Jeanette said. “Mark playing folk music, and myself dancing with the exact same groups. Who would have known that we are now working together with these student ensembles?”

Mark has been teaching the folk ensemble group Mountain Strings for the last 24 years. Jeanette has been the International Folk Dance Ensemble artistic director since 2011, when she took over for Ed Austin after more than 20 years as his rehearsal assistant.

“It is quite unique and exciting to be able to be in a work environment with my husband,” Jeanette said. “Mark and I work well together in the creative process. He will have ideas that I have not thought about and vice versa. If I am struggling finding the right music ideas for a piece, he will always have great solutions.”

Working together not only benefits Mark and Jeanette, but also provides a great opportunity for students to merge music and dance to create something more powerful.

“It brings such a rich experience to the students and audiences to have both the music and the dance together,” Jeanette said. “This is how they exist in societies. They compliment each other and give a more full artistic experience. The students learn and grow by bringing these two live components together on the stage.”

Jeanette and Mark employ dancing and music in their family and church activities.

“We often conduct barn dances and trek dances for stakes,” Jeanette said. “I call the dancing, and the rest of the family takes care of the live music accompaniment.”

Just as with their family, the Geslisons find sharing their passions for dance and music with their students inspires them as well.

For Jeanette, teaching folk dance to her BYU students is a true passion.

“Teaching world dance at BYU is something I wake up every day excited to do,” Jeanette said. “I love working with the students and seeing them grow and develop their skills and talents. I love helping them reach their goals.”

Mark said after 24 years of teaching, it’s his students that keep him going.

“I love working with these bright, happy people,” Mark said. “They keep me young and they have a very positive outlook on life. They are very talented, and they project a bright spirit.”

Mark said the camaraderie among his students in the folk music ensemble, Mountain Strings, inspires him to see the good in others.

“Mountain Strings members are like a very happy family,” Mark said. “They are very good friends and no one is ever left out. The students become each others’ biggest fan. They truly support each other. They teach me to be resilient and to always find the good in other people.”

Grace Dayton, a member of Mountain Strings, said her folk journey began with her mother’s example.

“I found out about (the BYU folk ensemble) because my mom was a folk dancer when she was here, so she kind of had me exposed to that and I knew about it since I was very young,” Dayton said.

Even though Dayton grew up training in classical music, she said it was folk music that spoke to her heart.

“I think that’s because folk music really speaks to you on a different level than I think anything else can,” Dayton said. ” It’s the music of the people… It still has that kind of power, so it really speaks to people on a different level, and I think it has greater capacity to reach across those gaps be it difference or age or culture.”

Through the ensemble, Dayton has had the opportunity to travel and perform in different countries around the world, and it has taught her the power of folk music to transcend cultural barriers.

“A lot of times we will attend folk festivals outside of the U.S.,” Dayton said. “So it’s very interesting because when you go there, groups are representing countries from all over the world and there’s oftentimes a great language barrier. But what I’ve seen is that folk dancing and folk music especially transcend that boundary and we are able to connect with them in a way that we couldn’t linguistically.”

Tours and festivals like these are an opportunity for folk ensemble and dance students to test out the skills that they’ve been learning, strengthen their friendships and share their light and spirit with the world, according to Jeanette.

“These tours are where the students get to put all our work into action,” Jeanette said. “We prepare all year to learn the show content and fireside music, etc. As the students serve and work, they truly put their ambassadorship into action. It really is experiential learning first hand. They learn life long lessons and people skills. They learn much more in 10 days than any university lecture could teach them.”

This May, the group will have the opportunity to tour Southeast Asia for 22 days, visiting Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

While the folk groups perform many different styles, they are also comprised of many different people, with students of varying interests and backgrounds coming together to create a unified sound and movement.

“Of the 28 dancers, nine of them are dance majors,” Jeanette said of her dance group.  “The rest of them study all varieties of vocation. They each have different areas of expertise. Each student performer brings their own unique talent to the group and this diversity is so valuable with the many different cultural movement styles of dance that we offer.”

It’s the same way for the folk ensemble group, according to Dayton, who said that only one student in the group is actually a music major. Ensemble members are studying everything from communication disorders to teaching government in a high school setting to physician assistant training.

According to Mark, this kind of variety and diversity speaks to the nature of folk music and dance which is meant as a way for each culture to share their own voice, focusing on always being themselves instead of some classical ideal.

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