Artist Profile: Dancing for Joy presents spirit-filled performance about Christ’s birth

Sixteen years ago, Maluhia Vander Griend and her husband, Kurt, founded Dancing for Joy, a dance school, in humble beginnings at Hillcrest Chapel in Fairhaven. Over the years they’ve seen their program transformed. They now offer dozens of classes to all ages in a myriad of dance styles, and they stage two full productions at Mount Baker Theatre. Here is Maluhia’s story.

Question: How did you first become interested in dance?

Answer: I am originally from Oahu, with some Hawaiian in my bloodline and probably some dance moves in my DNA. When I was 5 years old my parents enrolled me in dance classes as a hopeful treatment for my newly diagnosed dyslexia. That was 30 years ago and I have been dancing ever since.

When I turned 10, our family moved to Bellingham and I entered the Morca Academy for dance training until Isabel Morca passed away (our daughter is named after her).

During my Sehome High School years I trained in Richmond, B.C., attended dance intensives at the Summer Dance Lab in Walla Walla, and attended Oklahoma City University on a musical theater scholarship. I later performed professionally and taught with the Fusion Dance Company in Seattle.

Q: When did you realize that dance was something you wanted to pursue professionally?

A: For me, living wholeheartedly means to engage body and soul, mind and spirit. That sounds and feels like the definition of dance to me. When I move and create and express, I sense something close to what I would call worship.

My dreamy, girlhood goal was to perform on Broadway, but reality chimed in and charmed its way into my life. I discovered I loved teaching kids and mentoring teens. My fiancé and my mother encouraged me to go with the multifaceted future I really wanted; getting married, having a family, teaching, and continuing to dance.

Being able to combine my love for dance and my passion for youth continues to thrill me daily.

Q: Who inspires you?

A: My husband Kurt, a multimedia-artist, is my biggest role model, inspiration and fan. Together we love to keep on dreaming up those new ideas and concepts for our two yearly shows at Mount Baker Theatre and to continue innovating our curriculum at our Dancing for Joy studios.

Q: What’s the history of Dancing for Joy?

A: Dancing for Joy started in 1998 at Hillcrest Chapel with a handful of students. We didn’t have a dance floor, mirrors or ballet bars, but we were grateful for an expansive space that invited all kinds of possibilities. We began to see dance as art, as a wholesome and fun activity for healthy development, discipline and a lifelong blessing. We wanted to instill the love and joy of dance in our students of all ages while providing quality instruction and maintaining professionalism. Modesty and creativity and mentoring became goals as well.

Q: What do you teach, and who are your students?

A: Our 2014-15 class offerings are: ballet, jazz, tap, modern, contemporary, lyrical, musical theater, adult beginners , and several for preschoolers, including creative movement, and Tiny Twirlers for 2-year-olds. Our students range in age from 2 to 75.

Q: What else should we know about Dancing for Joy?

A: Today we have three studios with sprung floors, our Stomping Grounds coffee shop, 28 amazingly gifted employees, and more than 700 student hours per week. With our growth came the desire to build community among our families and to perform benefit shows for building wells in Ethiopia.

We are still dreaming. In September of 2015 we plan an expansion to the Dancing for Joy facility that will house ArtPeace (an art school) and Love to Learn (an art and dance preschool).

Q: Why do YOU dance for joy?

A: I feel most free when I dance and am able to express myself. Several years ago I choreographed a dance for myself to help me heal through losing my mom to cancer. That experience helped me to grieve and eventually move toward joy, a deeper joy than I had thought would ever be mine after such a loss.

Dance has been my constant, a touchstone. I am so thankful for the opportunity to share this joy with others through my teaching and performing.

Q: What’s the history of the annual Christmas program?

A: We are excited to share this year’s Christmas show with the community. We wanted to do something a bit different from the classic “Nutcracker,” choreographed in the spirit of Christmas joy, and opened up to a bunch of exuberant students and their teachers.

The nativity story comes alive through dance and launches us into the true essence of Christmas. We have had families say to us, “Wow! You didn’t tell us we needed to bring Kleenex to your show. So beautiful and touching.”

(Ian Agerter, who plays Joseph, was 3 when he was a dancing sheep in our first Christmas production. Today he is 17 and an exquisite dancer.)

Q: What else brings you joy in your life, besides dance?

A: My husband and artistic partner of 15 years; our children: Josiah, 13; Malakai, 10; and Isabel, 9, and friends and family who understand the rhythms of my heart. Joy is woven through my life, sometimes euphoric, often poignant. I cannot imagine living without it.

A few days ago we had a fake snowball fight in the studio, perhaps delightful choreography at its best. I find joy in noticing the quirks and wonders of each child’s developing personhood.

A glitter-and-sequin-littered dance floor means joyful anticipation for a show about to begin.