Ambassadors through dance: performers at Church schools share message of friendship across the globe

Traveling to places such as Russia, Estonia, Argentina, China, Japan or Holland sounds like a fun, exotic way to spend time during the summer months - especially for college students.

But for members of student performing groups at BYU, Ricks College and BYU-Hawaii, these trips mean more than traveling to exotic places. Their travels give them a chance to be ambassadors for the Church and the Church-owned schools they represent, as well as many times for the United States.Beginning this month, more than 200 students representing nine performance groups from Church schools will travel to 26 countries as they embark on their summer tours. (Please see accompanying box.) The students are expected to perform for audiences totaling approximately 400,000.

"We hear stories of those who first came in contact with the Church by attending a performance of one of these groups," said Randy Boothe, artistic director of BYU's Young Ambassadors. "The performance seems to break down barriers.

"We've been fortunate to be involved as ambassadors to many parts of the world during the last 22 years," Brother Boothe explained. "We were the first LDS performing group to travel to the former Soviet Union in 1978. We were also the first group to go into the Peoples Republic of China after diplomatic ties were reestablished in 1979. I honestly believe the Lord opened doors when we needed to be there. I think what the people see is a group of young American Mormons who, with the medium of music and dance, want to share a message of friendship."

Although the groups are not allowed to proselyte on tour, they are able to answer questions about the Church.

"Without us doing any proselyting, people soon find out we are affiliated with the Church," said Edwin Austin, artistic director of the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble.

"The students' example opens the door to answer questions about BYU, the quality of the university and about the values we have as members of the Church. In some cases this leads into more serious gospel conversations."

Janielle Christensen, artisitc director of the BYU Lamanite Generation, remarked: "These young performers carry with them an undeniable spirit that moves people to inquire what it is that brings joy to these performers."

Thad Horton, a sophomore at Ricks and a member of the college's Ballroom Dance Company, recalled performing last year with the Ricks performing group, Extravadance. "We danced at a senior citizens home. After we performed, we went into the audience and talked with them; some of them cried. It made me feel really good to know that I could share the spirit with them and touch their lives."

Doug Smith, director of the Ricks College Ballroom Dance Company, remarked that the students represent "not only the Church, but also the United States. We try to teach the dancers to be respectful of the traditions of others and to be polite."

Alton L. Wade, president of BYU-Hawaii, said: "We feel this tour [by Showcase Hawaii] is one way of influencing the world for good, of spreading peace and brotherhood, of strengthening the Church, and of helping prepare young people to provide service and leadership in the Church and in their individual communities and nations."

Mel Claridge, director of the Ricks College Contemporary Dance Theatre, explained, "For students to go across the sea to other countries does phenomenal things for testimonies and increases knowledge of cultures."

To help students prepare for their travels abroad, many performing groups hold culture classes. In addition to preparing physically, students prime themselves mentally and spiritually as well.

"Tours are hard work," Sister Christensen explained, reflecting on past Lamanite Generation tours. "Many times we are on the bus for 12 or 15 hours. We have two shows a day every day of the week, except Sundays. Then we usually participate in a sacrament meeting and we always do a fireside.

"It is also mentally very demanding to be out four to five weeks in a highly visible position where your example is everything. Someone is always watching and waiting for your example."

The rigorous schedule is the same for all performing groups. The Young Ambassadors, for example, spend time in the mornings visiting city officials or performing in orphanages or hospitals. On nights they are not giving concerts, they are giving firesides.

Brother Claridge illustrated the strain of touring for the Ricks performing group Extravadance: "During our trip this year to Japan, we're spending nine days in a theme park and we're doing six shows a day, plus evening shows. Our shows are about 20-30 minutes, but that's still 54 shows just in the theme park. That doesn't include our evening full-length shows for wards, churches and other sponsors."

To be a member of a performing group takes more than talent, directors of the groups note. It also takes a lot of commitment along with the ability to be a team member. On top of taking a full-time class load, students usually spend many hours each week practicing for upcoming performances.

Brother Smith said attitude plays a big part in selecting members of the Ricks College Ballroom Dance Company. "We look for people who are concerned about technique and yet willing to help others instead of trying to get to the top themselves."

Performing groups earn part of the money for travel expenses, but normally students must pay a portion as well. The schools also help pay for trips.

To participate in a performing group, students must be full-time students, be in good academic standing and be in good standing within the Church.

"We do that because we are representing the Church everywhere we go," said Claudia Hill, BYU Ballroom Dance Company promotional director.

To ensure groups are not overlapping each other in the countries in which they travel, tours for groups from BYU, Ricks and BYU-Hawaii plus institute groups are coordinated by the Church Educational System Coordinating Committee chaired by Stanley A. Peterson, administrator of religious education for the Church.

All tours are cleared through university officials and then approved by members of the Seventy who serve in area presidencies, and by the Church Board of Education.

"The performing groups have had a very positive impact in some of the developing areas of the world," Brother Peterson remarked. "Doors have really opened in Eastern Europe and in Asia where they have been invited to perform."

To give an idea of the wide spectrum of travel by performing groups at BYU, Ricks and BYU-Hawaii, the following are descriptions of this summer's tours:


Although BYU has a variety of performing groups that travel, there are four main groups that seem to be the most well-known: Young Ambassadors, the Lamanite Generation, Ballroom Dance Company and International Folk Dance Ensemble.

The Young Ambassadors will return to the former Soviet republics after performing there in 1991. A new dimension to this year's performance includes translating the show into Russian, Lithuania, Latvian and Estonian, with supertitles projected above the stage in every performance.

A group of 32 students will make up the touring team, 18 as singers/dancers, four as show band members, and 10 as the technical staff.

A highlight of returning to Latvia will come in renewing friendships with a host family that joined the Church after members of the Young Ambassadors stayed in their home two years ago, he added. There were no members in Latvia at the time the group toured the country in 1991. Now a mission has been established in the area.

The Ballroom Dance Company will debut new choreography and costumes during its tour this summer. The company's 36 dancers, with the help of five student technicians, will perform several award-winning dance medleys. The team recently claimed their ninth and 10th championships at the British Ballroom Formation Championship in Blackpool, England, as well as their 11th United States Formation team championship.

The Lamanite Generation includes 30 performers and 10 technicians on its touring team, which performs the music and dance of the cultures of Native America, Latin America and Polynesia. Members of this group must be from these areas.

The International Folk Dance Ensemble will travel to South America for the first time. The touring team includes a group of 20 students - 12 dancers, a bluegrass band of six and three technicians.

This year the group has been invited to Volksfest in Berlin, Germany, a folk festival sponsored by the U.S. Army. Members of the group will also travel to Armenia to perform, at the invitation of the Europe Area presidency.

Ricks College

The four performance teams at Ricks that travel internationally are Showtime Company, the Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Ballroom Dance Company and American Folk Dancers. Ballroom and contemporary teams combine yearly as the performing group, Extravadance. The folk dancers occasionally join in this group's international tour.

This year, Extravadance tours in Japan, where it performed in 1991. About 30 dancers - six couples from ballroom and 18 students from contemporary dance - will perform a 90-minute revue.

The Ballroom Dance Company has also competed and performed throughout the United States. In 1989, the dancers won BYU's International Ball Formation Team Competition for the third straight year.

Contemporary Dance Theatre has participated in the Northwest regional American College Dance Festival and was selected to represent the Northwest region at the National American College Dance Festival in the summer 1992.

Under the direction of Charles West, the American Folk Dancers include about 24 dancers who perform dances that reflect American culture.

Brother West said that at least once every year the folk dancers are invited to folk dance festivals held throughout the world. Including a six-member bluegrass band, the company performs on stages or even in the streets, and participates in parades. A highlight in Ricks folk dance history were 1992 festival performances in China.

Showtime Company, which is similar to BYU's Young Ambassadors, includes about 13 young men and women. Directed by Russell Bice, the company is backed by a nine-piece orchestra. Nine technicians are responsible for lighting, sound and costuming.


BYU-Hawaii's performing group, Showcase Hawaii, will embark on the first major international tour by a BYU-Hawaii performing group in 10 years. The tour team includes 15 performers and 4 technicians.

"This tour is the culmination of many years of work by many members of the BYU-Hawaii family," remarked Reinhardt Krekow, artistic director of Showcase Hawaii.

James Smith, tour leader and director of BYU-Hawaii's vocal program, said: "The international nature of the Church is reflected in the BYU-Hawaii student body, and in Showcase Hawaii. It is a thrill for us to go to some of the student's homelands and share with their people the unique spirit and values of our university and the Church."


'93 Tour Schedule


Lamanite Generation, April 24-May 26, performing in Texas, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

Ballroom Dance Company, April 27-May 27, includes performances in Utah, California, Taiwan, the Peoples Republic of China, Hong Kong and Thailand.

Young Ambassadors, May 3-June 5, with performances in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The International Folk Dance Ensemble, May 12-June 13, includes performances in Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile; July 26-Aug. 16, performing in Germany; Aug. 16-24, Armenia.


Extravadance, April 24-May 11, performing in Japan.

American Folk Dancers, July 29-Aug. 22, includes performances in Holland, Denmark and Sweden.

Showtime Company, April 25-May 28, performing throughout 14 northeastern states of the United States, and in Ontario and Quebec.


Showcase Hawaii, May 1-29, includes performances in Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Korea.

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