• J. Isaac Noel Benjamin, II

The Art of Dancing with Heart and Soul


Courtesy photo from Happendance. Jalisa Brown is pictured above. She was a Happendance and Everett High School graduate. Brown received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Western Michigan University. The spectacular dance move was taken at the Wilson Auditorium in St John's.


For those of you who are Star Trek fans, you will understand and appreciate the following reference. There is an episode of Star Trek where Leonard Nimoy’s character Spock is described as deep in the "deplocto." This description is apropos where it relates to the condition Missy Lilje finds herself in when she dances. “Dancing for me is special,” said Lilje. “Time appears to stand still, and I am in the moment. It's magical and truly is my happy place." Missy is the executive director of Happendance. “We are a quality of life mission,” stated Lilje. “We believe that everybody deserves the opportunity to create their best quality of life. We do that through dance. Often dance can be full of barriers. Whether the obstacle is transportation, financial, or the ability to get to see a performance, we like to eliminate those barriers.”


The concept of a dance troupe to help others was a brainchild of Diane Newman. Newman, a former MSU dance student, thought it would be awesome to share what dance meant to her and her fellow dancers with the public. "During the summer, a lot of the students would go to New York or Los Angles to train," explained Lilje. So, Newman mused, why should I have to do that. It all began with her friends getting together a guerrilla dance session on the grass at MSU. It is where calling this event "Happendance” started. Their first organized public performance happened in the yard of the MSU Auditorium. The students continued their performances, and before long, they were getting requests to perform in public schools. Newman founded her dance troupe in 1976. The mission statement for Happendance is: To stimulate support for the art form of dance through educational programs and performances. To broaden accessibility to dance to diverse populations for life-long physical, mental, and social-emotional wellness.

Courtesy photo from Happendance


Lilje was introduced to Happendance at the tender age of seven. Lille's mom, a child development specialist, was looking for a dance class to enroll her daughter. She had heard through the grapevine that Diane Newman was the person to see. So, in 1982, she enrolled Lilje in dance. "The training I received while enrolled there was wonderful," said Lilje. She went on to get her Bachelor of Fine Arts as a dance major at the University of Michigan. Then a Master of Fine Arts at Arizona University. After graduating, she performed professionally for 15 years, touring the United States and Europe. Finally, she settled back in Phoenix with a great job at a country club. "I never thought I would end-up back in Lansing," smiled Lilje. "But, after some reflection, I realized what a special connection I had to Happendance. In 2006, Lilje returned to Lansing, bought a house, and reconnected with Happendance. In 2013, she became the executive director.


Happendance teaches dance with both a passion and a purpose. "In the world of dance, there is concert dance and commercial dance," explained Lilje. "Commercial dance has the dance competitions, dance videos, Broadway, and movies. This is the dance that most of the world considers dance. Concert dance is our specialty and the portion of dance that feeds into the university. Our purpose at Happendance is to make dance available to everybody.”

Lilje revealed that one of her guilty pleasures is witnessing her students transform through dance. “That feels sacred,” she noted. “Many of our students are with us for fifteen years. They may come in at age three and stay till their 18th birthday.”


Remembering her students, one, in particular, comes to mind, Clara Martinez. “She is now the President of the Michigan Dance Council,” said Lilje. "Clara went on to attend and graduate from the number one dance program in the country. She overcame personal physical issues to achieve her goals. She is also the current director of the dance programs at Everett High School in Lansing. Reflecting on life, Lilje acknowledged that spending quality time with the people she loves makes her the happiest. "Life is short and sometimes hard," said Lilje. "Never waste that kind of Time. Live every day to its fullest."

Her favorite thing in the world to do is laugh and dance. Her favorite place in the world is Lansing. You guessed it. Home is where the heart is. As to a message for everyone, “Life is precious and short," said Lilje. "Come dance with us and make the most of it.” To find out more about Happendance and their goal to help others with self expression through dance and fine arts please visit www.happendance.org

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