Those who attended Christmas Around the World over the past decade may have seen a petite, elderly woman in stilettos and a sparkly red dress run up and join the BYU folk dancers with as much athleticism as the college students that make up the performance company.
That’s Mary Bee.
Mary Bee Jensen founded BYU Folk Dance. She not only established a world-renowned program at BYU, but she also became the USA Official Delegate of the Confederation International Organizations of Folklore Festivals, visited 70 countries over 74 years and co-founded the U.S. National Folk Organization, which thrives today. In Utah, she also co-founded the annual Springville World Folkfest.
Greg Tucker met his wife Marie while dancing with Mary Bee. Together, the Tuckers founded the Rocky Mountain Express dance school.
“So thanks to just (Mary Bee), all of our families now dance together,” Greg Tucker said. “I’d be shocked if there was a clogger out west who didn’t have a dance root back to Mary Bee.”
Mary Bee’s motto of “drive, determination and stubbornness” can be seen in her accomplishments and in the fact that she lived to be 100 — passing away just weeks before her 101st birthday.
Mary Bee’s nephew Rev. Robert Bee said she “was not one to sit around taking space on this planet…she wanted to contribute.”
He said she had two speeds: “fast” and “stop.” His story was corroborated by many who remember that Mary Bee “walked faster than anyone else.” Despite her enormous impact over folk dance in the U.S. and abroad, Mary Bee’s quirks — walking fast and wearing stilettos with unmatched elegance, even at her 100th birthday part — is what people remember about Mary Bee.
“I learned that you could see Paris in one day, if you walked with Mary Bee,” former folk dance assistant director Dennis Hill said. “You could hit the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre, and end up in the Rolls Royce restaurant and you’d have seen the whole city.”
Hill added that Mary Bee would tell students touring with her, “you can sleep when you get home.”
Mary Bee isn’t just remembered in the U.S.
Former BYU dance faculty member Colleen Nelson West experienced Mary Bee’s wide influence firsthand at a folk dance festival in Istanbul in 2010.
“I was sitting beside some people in the audience and a man leaned over and he goes, ‘I heard you’re from the United States. Do you know Mary Bee Jensen?'” West said. “It doesn’t matter where you go, if it was involved in folk dance, people knew her.”
Many people at Mary Bee’s memorial service on April 21 commented that once she got to heaven, she probably checked on the status of the folk dance program there — and if there wasn’t one, she would start one.
Although drive, determination and stubbornness shaped Mary Bee’s, life Rev. Bee said she cautioned those she taught her motto to, to never use these qualities against a person — only against obstacles.
“I want you to know how much she loved all of you,” Rev. Bee said.
Mary Bee’s second and youngest son, Jim Jensen shared details about Mary Bee’s last days. She suffered from a bout of pneumonia near the end of 2017 and spent most of February in a hospital recovering. However, Jensen said the hospital staff marveled at her spunk, and countless nurses and doctors said they hoped to have her vitality.
Jensen said when he spoke to her about her accomplishments, she was “emphatic” that she couldn’t take all the credit — rather, it was the talents of the people she worked with. She took special interest in every young person she interacted with and trained them to be dancers and leaders.
West came to BYU from Calgary, Canada as a student with no idea what to major in. West had danced all her life in various styles, but never in folk dance — she auditioned for the folk team at the encouragement of roommates.
“I made the team, and I never realized at that moment how much joining that performance company would change my life,” West said.
Looking back, West said she later realized Mary Bee gently trained her to become a leader, inviting West to address groups of people on the spot and giving West tips on teaching.
“When I graduated, I never dreamed in a million years that I would continue to stay in the folk dance program and teach folk dance and tap and be a full-time faculty member in the dance department,” West said of Mary Bee’s influence on her life.
The feeling that Mary Bee was more than just a dance teacher was expressed by many. The current artistic director for the International Folk Dance Ensemble, Jeanette Geslison, shared a particularly special bond with Mary Bee as a recipient of the Mary Bee Endowment Scholarship. Mary Bee’s husband served an LDS mission in Denmark, where Geslison is from, and Mary Bee’s first ever European folk dance tour began in Denmark.
“She was always so supportive of me, so encouraging and so positive in the way that she would just motivate me and tell me she believed in me. It meant a lot to me.”
Hill said Mary Bee used to jokingly refer to the folk dance program as the “Mary Bee Finishing School.”
In addition to etiquette and polite behavior, Hill said folk dancers learned to be comfortable and always do their best, whether they were dancing for the king and queen of Sweden or for farmers in a small village in France.
“We dance from our heart,” Hill remembered Mary Bee saying.
Another loving quality people repeatedly shared about Mary Bee was her incredible memory. West recalled Mary Bee’s 100th birthday celebration last year where the line of people who came to congratulate her was three hours long, and Mary Bee remembered the name of every single person.
She didn’t just remember people’s names — she remembered what they were doing, and the names of their children and what their children were doing.
“It was a gift of hers, to be such a personal kind of friend and be very genuinely investing in other people and their wellbeing and success,” Geslison said.
Greg Tucker shared a similar notion.
“No matter wherever she was, she never forgot names. She knew our names, she knew our kids’ names, she remembered what we were doing, amongst the millions that she knew.”
Mary Bee dedicated a large part of her life to the BYU Folk Dance program, and continued to support folk dance at BYU and around the world long after her retirement. However, Jensen said she shifted gears after her retirement nonetheless.
“I gladly proclaim the parallel to her great accomplishments is the list of her accomplishments as a loving wife, loving mother and loving grandmother,” Jensen said.
Jensen said his mother had a particularly special relationship with his twin boys, Spencer and McKay, who are both currently serving LDS missions. Jensen said she would have Spencer and McKay over to play, and he knew his sons would be wrapped in “love and wonder” while at her home.
The core motivation for Mary Bee to recover was so she could see Spencer and McKay return home from her missions, but unfortunately, that was not meant to be. The young men received special permission to video call their grandmother shortly before she passed away.
In light of their grandmother’s passing, Jensen said, “I want to gladly testify that the two boys nurtured by their grandmother have indeed ‘cowboyed up'” and proceeded to read two letters, one from each of his sons.
Spencer’s letter said he considered his grandmother his best friend and a true reflection of Jesus Christ’s life. McKay wrote that he couldn’t recall a time he didn’t feel loved by his grandmother, nor a time she spoke poorly of someone else.
“To me and many others, my grandmother was a beacon of light,” McKay wrote. “She truly was a miraculous woman.”
Current folk dance team member and recipient of the Mary Bee Endowment Scholarship Brandon Carter had few interactions with Mary Bee, but said they were memorable.
“It was so awesome to see how tenacious she was, even at an older age,” Carter said.
He called her inspiration to start the folk dance program “amazing.”
Through her drive, determination and stubbornness, as well as her Christlike love for everyone she met, Mary Bee touched thousands of lives around the world. And although the next generation of folk dancers won’t know her personally, they will owe everything they experience to Mary Bee.
In the worlds of Allison Dale, who performed a musical number at Mary Bee’s memorial service, “She loved life.”