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News & Press: FOCUS

Dancing Through Life: Happendance

Tuesday, September 5, 2017  
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"I struggle to describe Happendance," said executive director Missy Lilje. “I am working on how to sum it up.”

It would be easy to label Happendance as merely a dance studio, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s crucial to acknowledge the company’s mission that goes beyond dance and its rich history that began not at a dance studio, but on the lawns of Michigan State University.

In 1976, Diane Newman and Karen Sprecher used a $300 grant to fund the first of their yearly ‘happenings,’ surprise, site specific performances that they choreographed and put on for hundreds of people. These dances began at a time when the dance community was questioning what dance was, and Newman and Sprecher boldly decided that they could just dance on the grass. These happenings occurred for 15 years before Happendance found a home in an actual studio. During a 1991 State of Michigan budget crisis, every other professional modern dance company went out of business except for Happendance because Newman gifted her own studio to the Happendance company.

“Because Diane gave up the private studio she worked so hard to build, Happendance was able to stay open,” said Lilje.

Happendance’s extraordinary work has resulted in strong business support for the non-profit organization. The company is sponsored by many notable businesses, including Sparrow, the Allen Neighborhood Center, and Loomis Law Firm.

Today, Happendance serves 14,000 people a year and is made up of many components. They have the Velocity Contemporary Concert Dance Professional Company, a dance school, and the Happendance Education Exchange which serves public schools in the area. The company facilitates the Dance Lansing collaboration and has recently opened a second studio in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood. Through their growth, Happendance remains devoted to their mission.

“We believe that every person deserves the best opportunity to create their highest quality of life, that’s what drives everything that we do,” said Lilje.

Happendance has been recognized as one of the the best studios in the region. Even while delivering the best educational experience they can, the organization continues to enhance the lives of those they serve.

“We strongly believe that improving the quality of lives of those we touch is more important than any award we could possibly win and know that dance has lots and lots of ways to increase quality of life,” said Lilje.

Before becoming executive director, Lilje was a Happendancer herself before studying dance at the University of Michigan. Lilje has spent many years pushing back against the notion that people cannot find a viable career in the arts. Her own passion for dance is what has kept her in the industry, even through times of uncertainty.

“I don’t know how to live without it,” she said. After finishing her Master’s of Fine Arts degree in Dance Performance and Choreography at Arizona State University, she returned to Lansing and has served as executive director for the past four years.

During her time as CEO, Lilje has been dedicated to ensuring that dance is accessible for learners for every age, socioeconomic status, ability, and skill level.

“We want everyone to have access to a world-class experiences in dance,” said Lilje. Happendance stands strongly behind this belief, campaigning for donations to support every interested dancer from three year olds to lifelong learners.

In 2016, Happendance celebrated its 40th anniversary and all the progress it has made. Looking towards the future, the company hopes to refine what they are doing and strategize how to serve their mission more effectively, always working to remain a “family that’s meant to increase the quality of life for everybody that it touches.”

Click here to download the September issue of FOCUS.

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