Cougarettes trip abroad filled with service and spirit

This past summer the BYU Cougarettes embarked on a trip to France and Italy. While the Cougarettes were able to dance and perform in various settings, the highlights of the trip involved being able to serve others and bring a measure of hope, love and the Spirit of God to others.

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This past summer the BYU Cougarettes embarked on a trip to Italy and France. While the Cougarettes were able to dance and perform in various settings, the highlights of the trip involved being able to serve others and bring a measure of hope, love and the Spirit of God to others.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a tour," said Stacy Bills, BYU co-head coach. "We competed, performed, visited two temples, visited with refugee families in Paris, shared our testimonies and visited dozens of historical sites."

World Dance Movement - Castellana Grotte, Italy

The trip started off with a competition at World Dance Movement, an international dance festival. The Cougarettes prepared and performed five different pieces, selected from the Cougarettes in Concert, which they performed in Provo last February. The dances were in various styles, including lyrical, contemporary, hip hop and jazz. The Cougarettes were awarded an innovative choreography award for Comes in Waves and took home the award for Dance Group of the Year, which was the overall highest award given to the performing groups at the event. 

"The competition was held literally in the streets of Italy," said Abbi Kelley Slade, Cougarette 2022-23 team president. "They put up a stage and blocked off the road. Locals could open the windows of their apartments and watch us perform from their living rooms. Dancing on that stage in the middle of beautiful Italy was magic! When we dance, we always strive to make our audience feel something and to share the light of Christ and being able share our love of dance and that light of Christ with locals all the way across the world was so special."

The week following the competition, the Cougarettes took classes and rubbed shoulders with dancers from the USA, Italy, Russia, Australia, Canada, Estonia, Mexico and other countries. Two of the dancers in particular became extremely close to the team and remain in contact with many of the Cougarettes. The Cougarettes were able to share and teach some gospel principles with the pair, sharing a Book of Mormon with each and writing their testimonies within the covers.

"Our classes were an interesting experience because there are not a lot of big dance studios like there are in Utah," Slade said. "They had put down dance floor in a public basketball gym and rolled in some mirrors, and there was no AC, in the middle of hot Italian summer. We worked hard and we sweat a lot in that hundred-degree dance room. We are lucky we had a great trainer, tour manager, coaches and admin to help keep us hydrated and cool."

Before the team left Castellana Grotte, it was able to perform the dances and material they learned in classes throughout the week, along with one more dance selected from their February concert as a guest performance. They had a wonderful time sharing the stage with so many talented dancers. 



Tours and Caves - Puglia, Italy

While major goals of the trip included excelling in dance performance and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, other key goals included fully experiencing the cultures within the places the Cougarettes were visiting and also building team bonds.

In Puglia (a region of Italy that covers Bari, Monopoli, Castellana Grotte, Alberobello, Polignano a Mare, etc.), the Cougarettes toured underground caves, an ancient city with Trulli homes (small huts that still stand today), took a boat tour of the caves along the coast of Adriatic Sea, saw churches, cathedrals, museums and ate a lot of pizza, pasta and gnocchi, along with the best gelato they experienced on the trip.

The Sabbath, a Delight

On the Sundays abroad, the Cougarettes were able to attend church in both Bari and Rome, Italy with local congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In Bari, members of the congregation translated the meetings into English and made space for the Cougarettes in their small meeting houses, creating a very welcome spirit. On the Monday evening in Bari, the Cougarettes performed and taught a dance at an activity for the local Young Single Adult group, which turned into an activity for the entire congregation. The members of the congregation, friends and neighbors attending, along with the Cougarettes, had a wonderful time. A local member of the congregation, named Valeria, translated. She happened to be a student from BYU who was home for the summer. An elderly woman at the activity was so moved by the Cougarettes in Bari that she gave Kate Zimmerman (a freshman Cougarette) her earrings and insisted she take them and call her “Nonna.” 

“We left that evening with our hearts full and grateful for the opportunity to share our love of dance with so many,” said Morgan St. Pierre, BYU co-head coach.

Tours, Temple and Pasta Making - Rome, Italy

In Rome, the Cougarettes toured St. Peter's Basilica where they saw La Pieta. They also toured the Vatican, as well as Sistine Chapelle where they saw many famous paintings by Michelangelo and Raphael (and many other artists). They toured the Castel de Saint Angel, Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Pantheon and the Roman Forum. Some Cougarettes took a pasta making class, while others rented Vespas to ride around the city.

On Sunday in Rome, the Cougarettes were able to tour the Rome temple grounds and visitor’s center. 

“The spirit was strong, and it was wonderful to share that as a team and meet, listen and learn from the members there,” St. Pierre said.

Serving Refugees and Serving in the Temple - Paris, France

In Paris, the Cougarettes were able to see the Eiffel tower, take a boat tour on the Seine River, tour the Louvre, Saint Chapel, Musee' de Orsay, see Notre Dame and the work being done to restore it after its chapel burned down in 2019 and eat plenty of crepes and creme brulee.  

More importantly, the Cougarettes were invited to a refugee center in Paris, Residis, to dance and teach the many children that went to school and stayed there. This was a highlight of the trip for many. The center made a welcome sign and those in the center sang Do-Re-Mi in French, and had the Cougarettes join in, singing in English. After a performance by the Cougarettes, all were invited to dance together.

"We seriously fell in love with these little ones," Kelley Slade said. "It was so special to see how humble and grateful they were for the littlest things. We brought with us some stickers that said 'love one another' and 'BYU Cougarettes' on them, and they were jumping for joy at us handing them out. Something so little to us meant so much to them. It was inspiring to see how grateful they were for every little thing. We got to do some dancing with them as well. We showed them some of our game-day sidelines and even taught them one of their own. We had so much fun jumping, clapping and dancing together."

Toward the end of the trip, the Cougarettes were able to attend the Paris Temple and perform proxy baptisms. They met an incoming BYU student, Michael from Belgium, who helped administer the confirmations in French. The Cougarettes visited with Elder and Sister Ed and Vicky Austin, a missionary couple in Paris right now, overseeing dance experiences. The Austins were formerly part of the BYU Department of Dance, and Ed directed the International Folk Dance Ensemble for 18 years. They shared a beautiful message about how the Church was able to finally get approvals to build the Paris Temple after many failed attempts. 

“Overall, I fell like this trip provided us as a team with greater gratitude for cultures, people and the Church abroad — appreciation for the truth of the gospel no matter where you are,” St. Pierre said. “I believe our dancers gained a greater patience and love for one another as a team. Our team theme this last year has been ‘Lean in & Look up.’ We have tried to be motivated to lean into our struggles and challenges as they come and try to gain resilience and strength from how those struggles change you, and look up to the Lord as you grow from your challenges. It was fun to share the message of our theme throughout the year, but especially live it and share it abroad as we danced in Europe. The foreign tour was really the icing on the cake to a wonderful year and honored this incredible group of women who represent their Cougarette team, BYU Athletics, BYU and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so beautifully.”

"Between the wards we attended and the beautiful temples we saw, it was so clear how much God loves each of his children. His love, His gospel and the truths of the gospel are the same in Utah, in Italy, France and everywhere. The Church members' dedication and sacrifice for their testimonies was so powerful. I know we went to Europe to touch the lives of others, but we came back having been touched even more by the members there."

Abbi Kelley SladeCougarette 2022-23 team captain