Haka! Hoop Dance! Huayno! BYU’s Living Legends student dancers have been famously stomping and swaying to the moves of these and other dances from peoples and cultures across the globe for over 40 years. Multiple generations of students with heritage from Latin American, Polynesian and Native American roots have come together to celebrate and preserve the traditions of their ancestors through this unique performing group.
When long-time Living Legends Artistic Director, Janielle Christensen, decided to retire during Summer 2019, there was a dramatic pause in the drumbeat. The questions arose: Who would the Living Legends leadership torch be passed to now? Who could continue to teach, promote and connect on tours as a diplomat representing BYU – and by extension, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – all across the world?
The search was on for the next fearless leader.
Enter stage right, Jamie Kalama Wood! From the bustling dance and theatre scene of New York City, Wood emerged. She had been watching the acting and dancing students from BYU as they did showcases over the years in New York. At a performance a few years back, she felt a sudden pressing interest and a nudge that she could make a difference for good at BYU, her alma mater. She made a mental note and casually waited in the wings, watching for her cue from above.
Fast forward to 2018-2019, Provo, Utah, where multiple BYU professors in the arts were considering retiring. Rare opportunities were opening, and the nudge came again.
“I reached out to a current professor, and I was surprised that a number of faculty were retiring from the theatre, music and dance departments in the next few years. The role that I was most excited about was this position with Living Legends,” Wood said. “As I investigated what would be needed to fill this role, it was obvious that my path had uniquely prepared me to apply for this position. I prayed about it. My husband prayed about it. We asked our children to pray about it, and every time we prayed, we felt peace.”
“So I decided to throw my hat in the ring,” Wood said. “I just kind of thought – I’ll see what happens!”
Well, what happened is now history. Christensen herself, among others, had recruited Wood to apply. She had the exact combination of skills, connections and heart that was needed. She was offered the job and she accepted.
Along with her husband Ryan — who is also an actor — and their four sons, she flew across the country in August to relocate among the mountains of Provo once again. The move has not been easy, she said. However, “the peace still continues, and the Lord continually surrounds us with gracious, supportive and loving people. We are mightily aware of the miracles that are happening as a result of choosing to take this position at BYU.”
The students, faculty and staff have been excited to get to know her.
“Jamie comes to BYU with a wealth of experience that will benefit our students greatly,” said Curt Holman, professor and chair of the Department of Dance. “We are thrilled to have a person of her caliber join the faculty.”
A graduate of BYU’s Music Dance Theatre BFA program and a former Young Ambassador, Wood is a “triple threat” overflowing with energy, international stage experience and cultural heritage herself. Her father is Native Hawaiian with some Japanese ancestry and adopted Sioux — as are his children. Half her mother’s family hails originally from Mexico and the other half were LDS European pioneers.
“My family has been part of Living Legends, formerly known as Lamanite Generation, since the very first year,” Wood said. “I have had cousins and friends in the group for as long as I can remember, and I always loved watching them perform. My father used to sing Go My Son — the most well-known Living Legends song — on his mission on the Sioux reservation.”
It’s not just her heritage that makes her an amazing fit. Her reputation as a performer and educator precedes her.
“I have known Jamie since she was a student at BYU,” said Nathan Balser, associate professor of dance and associate department chair. “Jamie is a vibrant, talented and hardworking person. She has been an integral part of the New York theatre scene for many years working for Disney and the Roundabout Theatre Company.”
She also holds a master’s degree (MFA) in Musical Theatre from San Diego State University, where she was adjunct faculty. She has held teaching roles in almost every company she’s performed with and has taught privately as well. She has also worked as an actor, director, choreographer and soloist in plays, musicals, commercials and movies — on stages and sets from New York to Las Vegas to LA.
In the midst of all this success, her courage and faith have stood the test of time.
“As a student, I transferred to BYU after my mission to Ohio,” Wood said. “Previously I had studied classical voice and musical theatre in California. Somehow BYU was never in ‘my plan.’ It wasn’t until I visited campus prior to my mission that I felt the not-so-gentle nudge of the Spirit to apply to BYU.”
“I am so grateful that I followed that prompting and trusted in that guidance,” Wood continued. “Besides learning my craft and making lifelong friends, I learned that it is possible to be an artist and a Saint.”
While a student at BYU she had the opportunity to work with Christensen in the 2002 Winter Olympics with Living Legends and other BYU dance groups performing Native American dances for the opening and closing ceremonies.
“Janielle is one of my favorite people in the world!” said Wood. “She is amazing!”
Transitions in leadership after 35 years can be hard in any context. With the world-wide fan base that Living Legends has had for so long, countless people have grown to know and love Christensen as the only director in their lifetime. Many consider her like family.
“Jamie definitely has big shoes to fill,” said Dion Tapahe, a senior majoring in environmental science from Window Rock, AZ, who has performed with Living Legends for four years and is this year’s Native American Section Leader. “But Jamie will hold her position well as director and make those contacts and connections. She has a bubbly, light personality, and I already love working with her. She makes it fun!”
“Jamie has a great spirit about her and a testimony of what she’s doing for the group – and what she will continue to do for the group,” Tapahe said.
Wood’s smiling face and positive energy can light up a room. Her staff, as well, has already embraced her enthusiasm and the significant performing panache she brings to dance at BYU.
“She has amazing ideas,” said Maya Nitta, the costume coordinator of Living Legends for the last several years. “I’m so excited to see what the new show will look like in the next few years! It’s going to be so cool!”
What does Wood hope to convey to the Living Legends students, alumni, fans and extended world-wide community? She shares her feelings – straight from the heart.
“The Living Legends program is inspired by God. He cares for these students, our people and the gospel message that this group can share in a way that is unique to them,” she said. “I am honored to be the new Artistic Director, and I hope that our Living Legends community knows how deeply they have affected me for good. I look forward to continuing the legacy of faith and power that drives this group forward.”
Living Legends auditions are this week. An open house is on Wednesday, August 28 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in the Richards Building. Students who are thinking about trying out for Living Legends will have a chance to meet with the group’s student leaders and former dancers. Tryouts and interviews will then follow on Thursday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Contributed by Erin McClellan