Dance is a form of expression with power to transport its audience—to Gypsy camps in Romania or to the rolling hills of Ireland—if only for a moment. Creating that moment is what the International Folk Dance Ensemble’s show The Gathering seeks to do. The ensemble’s ability to accurately present other cultures comes from the unique blend of skilled dancers and musicians who join the team after years of competing individually in their respective fields of dance and song. Native choreographers, who travel to BYU specifically to teach the dances that express their heritage and history, also significantly add to each performance.
Taylor Jones is one team member who has been competing at championship levels of clogging since age 14. She travels to multiple competitions each year in Utah and in neighboring states, and soon she will compete in the western region championship, Oireachtas, with hopes of qualifying for the world championship.
Folk Dance member Jaymie Lambson competed in the national competition for clogging last May, where she was named a member of the all-star, all-American team for clogging. Being involved in competitions has made a difference in her performances for Folk Dance. “It’s helped me learn that I need to continually be progressing and working on styling and skills so that I can keep developing my skills [and] not just get to a certain point,” Lambson said.
David Lewis is another team member who specializes in clogging. He has competed for years in the America on Stage competition and has participated in the Western Nationals Clogging Competition both on a team and as an individual. Lewis has won freestyle and a cappella awards in his age group and has received an all-American award. He also helped his team win a high ranking in each of the years they competed.
Folk Dance member Brittney Leavitt Wride is also an Irish dance competitor who is both a national and team-world qualifier. She is also an open-championship dancer. Folk Dance member Whitney Halford, who has been dancing for 15 years, grew up competing in clogging. Her preparation has helped her navigate the demanding and technical dances in Folk Dance Ensemble. “Many of the dance styles we learn are very new to me, which requires me to continue improving myself and expanding my horizon for dance styles,” Halford said. “The different dance styles have such personality and rich culture that I personally want to learn how to improve myself so I can give to each dance style the justice it deserves.”
Members of the Mountain Strings band, which accompanies the dancers, also compete nationally. Fiddlers Alina Geslison and Grace Dayton are three-time national title winners of the Twin Fiddle Championships.
Being part of the band drives the musicians to a higher standard. “You learn songs to a different caliber when you are thinking about a performance as you practice,” Geslison said. Maintaining that standard has brought the band exciting opportunities, such as performing the opening number for Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster, one of the foremost names in Celtic and folk music, on March 19, 2013.
Choreographers come from all over the world to teach Folk Dance members the dances from their respective countries. “It is such a wonderful experience when they come,” said Jones. “They bring an added energy and enthusiasm to the studio because it is their native dance. This allows us to learn the correct technique and learn additional details about the country and meaning of the dance and music.” Lambson recalled an experience working with an expert choreographer who spoke little English. “We had to learn the rhythms just by watching and by listening,” Lambson said. “She would sing the rhythm and show the steps. We had to switch into a different gear of learning.”
The experience and expertise these student performers bring allows the Folk Dance Ensemble to exceed typical college-level expectations, and they are often compared to professional teams.
The Folk Dance Ensemble and Mountain Strings will bring The Gathering to Nevada and Southern California March 8–17. They will perform in Mesquite, Las Vegas, San Diego, El Centro, San Gabriel, Victorville, and other venues in Southern California. The team will also spend the first two weeks of June in Nauvoo, Illinois, participating in service projects during the day and giving a performance each night.