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PERFORMERS’ INFLUENCE FELT WORLDWIDE

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Scott Sherrard was a 16-year-old high school student in Brunssum, Holland, the first time he saw the BYU Folk Dancers perform.

Already a member of the Church, Sherrard was familiar with BYU but when he stumbled upon the group at the community's folk dance festival, he was deeply impressed."I watched them perform what I later found out was the Salty Dog Rag," he recalled. "Afterward, they came out and talked to everyone and handed out little blue BYU folk dancer buttons. The spirit they carried touched me and made me proud to be a member of the Church."

That day, Sherrard made two goals: to someday dance as a BYU folk dancer and to be able to influence others the way he had been influenced.

Sherrard's experience is not unusual. Members and non-members alike tell similar stories of how their lives were changed as a result of interaction with performing groups from BYU and Ricks College.

"Showtime Company (a Ricks College group) has broken down barriers and opened doors for missionary work, something the members have been fasting and praying for," reported Stephen and Theresa Parkinson, members of the Kindersley Ward in Leader, Saskatchewan, where the group performed. "It was so refreshing and enlightening to have the opportunity of witnessing such high moral caliber and friendly performers."

Members of the performing groups do not actively proselyte, although most tote copies of the Book of Mormon while touring and, when asked, answer questions about the school and religion they represent. Almost every group member can tell a story about a less-active member who has become active or a non-member who has been baptized as a direct result of feeling "something special" during a performance.

"These clean-cut talented young people definitely have a tremendous impact in any country in which they have visited," observed Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the Council of the Twelve and chairman of the Missionary Executive Council. Elder Perry often works with the performing groups in determining tour destinations, based on requests from local Church units, which sometimes sponsor the groups' tours in different countries.

"We find that any time these groups have been in a country where missionaries later go, the people always remember the tour groups," Elder Perry noted. "They definitely have a decided impact on the work."

That impact doesn't come easily. Being a member of these traveling performing groups takes a great deal of dedication, both to perfecting talents and to living the gospel. In order to tour with the groups, an individual must pass a bishop's interview and most make personal commitments to read the scriptures, pray daily, and obey the commandments.

"It's the young people themselves who create the Spirit in these groups and they need to be worthy of it," said George Bowie, chairman of the performance scheduling advisory council at BYU. "Even though they don't go out on a formal proselyting mission, they know they are representatives of their families, the university, the country and the Church. They take a sense of pride in that and they are committed to being the best they can be."

Traveling abroad on performing tours first began at BYU more than 25 years ago. Today, nine BYU groups tour nationally and abroad, while two Ricks College groups hit the national and international tour circuit. Both schools also have other groups that only tour the United States. "We've basically covered the globe in the past few decades," Bowie observed.

According to records kept through the years, several million people have seen these groups perform. And the impression left is almost always favorable. "These groups are truly the gospel in action because their performances exemplify excellence, their personal lives reflect the pure light of clean living, and their enthusiasm for life radiates a genuine love for everyone they meet," said Russell Bice, director of Ricks College's Showtime Company.

"Because of this, the most important contribution the company makes to the missionary effort occurs when non-members attend performances or host cast members in their homes. These people `see' the effect of the Church in young lives and `feel' the spirit which radiates from each cast member. As a result, these non-members want to capture those same qualities and feelings for themselves and their families."

But audience members aren't the only ones affected by the performing experience. Members of the groups are often deeply influenced by what they learn and see while on tour. Scott Frogley, a member of BYU's Young Ambassadors, related one of the "highlights" of his life - singing for Mother Teresa during an India tour three years ago.

"We were supposed to just sing for her at a convent," he remembered. "But when she heard us sing, she asked if we could go with her to her home for the dying. Very few people are allowed to go there. We spent the whole day with her, singing and talking with the people. It was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget."

There are other benefits as well. Many members of the various groups find that the confidence and experience they have gained as a performer helps them as they serve missions. Sometimes the decision to serve a mission is even made as a direct result of their performing experience.

The influence of these tours, for both audiences and performers, can be far-reaching. Just ask Sherrard, who kept the blue BYU folk dancers pin he received in Holland as a reminder of his two goals. Several years later, after dancing with the Ricks College folk dancers and serving a mission, he found himself in the Orient, performing the Salty Dog Rag as a BYU folk dancer.

"It felt great to be able to influence others the way I had been influenced years before," he recalled. "Hopefully their lives, too, were changed for the better."