BYU dance groups persevere during COVID-19 pandemic

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Editor’s note: This story appeared in the September 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

BYU dance groups had to find creative ways to perform with COVID-19 restrictions this past year, but they persevered and found creative ways to adapt.

BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble

Two dancers from the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble perform during the Young Ambassador Virtual Tour on April 28, 2021 (Rebeca Fuentes/BYU Photo)

Jeanette Geslison, artistic director of the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble said the ensemble was formed in 1956 by Mary Bee Jensen. The group has 26 dancers and performs routines from different parts of the world, particularly North America, Northern and Western Europe, Tibet, Indonesia, Mexico and India, Geslison said.

The students performed all of 2020-2021 with masks, even during the online live streams they hosted throughout the semester, Geslison said.

BYU statistics alumnus and ensemble dancer Emmanuel Valdez said the group had a lot of guidelines put in place, having to wear masks and physically distance themselves during rehearsals.

Geslison said the students all said they would rather dance with masks, rather than not dance at all. “It wasn’t the easiest thing but after a few days the students got used to it.”

Living Legends

BYU Living Legends is a cultural dance performance group that represents the Native American, Latin and Polynesian cultures with its dance, but focuses more on indigenous dance according to Jamie Kalama Wood, artistic director for the group. Living Legends also focuses on spirituality and the connection people have to their ancestors and the world around them.

“For our performance teams, we usually rehearse together. But we couldn’t do that this year, so everybody was broken up into their sections for almost all of fall semester,” Wood said.

Living Legends performers also had to wear masks when they were singing and the team tried to follow the guidelines to keep the students safe, she said.

Members of the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble take a picture backstage with their masks on before a performance. (BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble)

Thinking outside the box

Geslison said the students were allowed to perform at the Richards Building theater for several performances. Up to 40 students at a time could enter the theater. The students and audience had to wear masks during the performances, and the audience had to socially distance as well.

However, with only being allowed to have up to 40 people at their performances, Geslison wanted to find a way to reach more. “We were trying to create a meaningful and positive experience for the students, despite the fact that live performances were taken away from them,” she said.

Geslison really had to think outside the box and decided live streams would help the ensemble have a much broader outreach. “Every performance, you typically have somewhere from 500 to 1,000 audience members in one live performance, but we had our livestream in January; our full show had about 1,000 streams from about 30 different countries.”

Geslison said seeing that many people streaming in and watching from different parts of the world was really amazing. A positive aspect of having the live streams was that family members of the performers who were in different countries could see the dancers perform.

Having the opportunity to reach places performing virtually was fun and a super positive experience, Valdez said.

“In some ways, there were hidden blessings that turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways,” Geslison said.

With a smaller physical audience, Wood also had to think outside the box on what Living Legends could do to switch it up because of COVID-19. Wood had the idea of recording videos of performers and putting them up on YouTube.

She said doing videos this year became something that was really powerful and put what they did into context. “It’s become a great resource already for educators as they try to expand their curriculum beyond colonial history.”

Virtual world tour

BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble members pose for a photo together at the BYU Dance live stream during a virtual live tour in April and May of 2021. (BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble)

Every summer, BYU dance groups go on a tour to a different country or place. Because of COVID-19 and travel restrictions, they were unable to do so. However, Geslison said in place of their regular tours, they could host an online tour with members of five other dance groups.

Geslison said this past April and May, the five dance groups including Living Legends, Ballroom Dance Company, International Folk Dance Ensemble, Young Ambassadors and Vocal Point hosted a virtual world tour and livestreamed all the performances from each group.

Wood said during the virtual world tour, the five groups tried to hit five different major time zones so everyone could join in from around the world and watch the performances.

“It really felt like a culminating experience for the students, even if they didn’t get to have their summer tour,” Geslison said.

The virtual world tour was a major highlight for the Living Legends team, Wood said. “We got to cheer each other on and dance with each other. The students were able to realize that they are also loved by their peers as well.”

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