From following dreams to flourishing career


A degree in dance is perceived to be a waste of a degree unless making it big in New York City, on “So You Think You Can Dance” or by joining an international or national traveling dance company. Missy Lilje, CEO of Happendance, is living proof that one can live successfully with a degree in dance without having to leave the comforts of
their hometown.

Lilje began dancing at Happendance at the age of seven and continued until she graduated high school. She received her BFA in dance from the University of Michigan and had plans to relocate to New York City until her plans fell through and she moved back home with her parents. She began teaching at Lansing Community College and came to love her job.

“I felt like I had won the lottery or found this crazy secret. I began to think ‘wow, how come nobody else does this, this is great,’” said Lilje.

After four years, Lilje decided to further her studies and pursue her MFA in dance at Arizona State University. She was never able to overcome her homesickness for Happendance and came to the conclusion that it’s a special place for her and one of two organizations of its kind in the country. She decided to head back home to work on her research and thesis at Happendance and commute to Arizona when needed.

As CEO of Happendance, Lilje’s days consist of checking emails, answering phone calls and teaching Advanced Modern Technique and Advanced Choreography. There are three aspects to her job: resource, board and staff development.

“It feels like I get to create, innovate, organize and communicate in a way that allows me to completely express myself,” said Lilje. “I start each day with a mantra that Oprah taught me, and that is, ‘how can I serve?’”

Lilje loves working for an organization that leaves such a positive impact on others, including those not involved with Happendance. There is a collaboration between Happendance, professional dancers and the community that influences everyone.

“We have a bunch of graduates who are innovating and changing the face of our field,” she said.

One of those innovators is David who took his first dance class with Lilje at Lansing Community College at the age of 19. He interned with Happendance and was accepted into the number one dance program in the country. He founded his own dance company in New York City and is currently on his second European tour. Lilje believes that there is no other organization, besides one in Washington D.C., which could have contributed to his success like Happendance.

“It’s the story of the person born to be an artist in this physical way, who now has a venue and an opportunity to realize their full potential and contribute to society,” she said. “That’s the best part of my job: watching artists flourish.”

Just like many high school seniors, it was difficult for Lilje to decide on a college program. Her parents were not initial fans of her wanting to pursue a degree in dance.

“They wanted me to do anything besides say that I wanted to be a dance teacher,” she said. “I just remember crying and looking into their eyes thinking ‘I can’t imagine being able to realize my full potential in any other way. Just let me get my bachelor’s degree then I promise I’ll get a real job.’”

Eventually gaining the support of her parents, she was able to take the risk of following her heart and going after her dreams. Having support when taking such a big risk is important and comforting, said Lilje.

“I realized that a dance degree really isn’t that big of a risk because the skills that you learn translate unbelievably well over into other fields. Take that first small step toward following your heart, maybe it’s a big leap, and always remember you can reevaluate and make a change at any time.”

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