For The Love of Dance

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

OnStage Dance Company held an open audition in early November and netted 25 dancers. The new dance company promotes a sense of community by giving adult dancers from all walks of life an opportunity to audition, learn, rehearse and perform in front of an audience. Its inaugural performances will take place on Jan. 19 and 20 during the ninth annual Maui Fringe Theater Festival at the Historic Iao Theater.

As the saying goes, sometimes you just have to dance.

But for Erin Kowalick and Dejah Padon, it’s more than a popular catchphrase — it’s a way of life.

“The creative aspect of dance is why I love it so much. I feel so free when I am dancing, like nothing else matters,” Kowalick said. “I also love that you don’t have to be a professional in order to enjoy dancing. Anyone at any age can do it, whether it is taking a class, performing or just dancing to some amazing music in your living room. It is — and should be — accessible to all.”

That’s why she and Padon joined forces to create OnStage Dance Company, a community-based dance company for adult dancers of all stripes. “The goal is to bring adults of all ages and from all dance backgrounds and styles of dance together,” she explained. “(It’s) by the community for the community.”

Kowalick made her dance debut at the age of 7 and spent her formative years dancing competitively in her home state of New York. She went on to study dance at the University at Buffalo and taught lessons at several studios before pursuing a master’s degree in education. Kowalick moved to Maui in 2006 and didn’t waste any time making her mark on the theater scene. Among other things, she’s choreographed a number of musical productions for Maui OnStage at the Historic Iao Theater; she also founded the Charter Dance Company at Kihei Charter School and worked as its director for five years.

Dance choreographers Erin Kowalick (in photo) and Dejah Padon (third photo) are the co-founders of the newly minted OnStage Dance Company, a community-based dance company for adults.

Padon was born into a family of singers, but at the age of 9 broke with tradition and laced up her first pair of ballet shoes. Two years earlier, she’d caught the performing bug when she took the stage for the first time in a Maui Community Theater (now Maui OnStage) production of “Gypsy.” That performance sparked her lifelong love of musical theater. “I was hooked,” Padon said.

In the years that followed, she racked up her share of theater credits and added more styles to her dance repertoire. At the age of 21, she caught the eye of a Seattle-based producer while performing in “A Chorus Line” at the Historic Iao Theater. That led to a 13-year career as a professional dancer and showgirl in Japan, Reno, Las Vegas and on board five Celebrity cruise ships.

Padon returned home to Maui in 2015 and quickly made a name for herself as a choreographer and youth theater director. In 2018, she took on two new roles: Maui OnStage’s box office manager and youth program assistant; she was also recruited to teach a creative dance class at her alma mater, Baldwin High School. “Yes, I wear a lot of hats,” she laughed.

And she recently donned another one: co-founder of OnStage Dance Company.

Padon and Kowalick met in 2016 during a Maui OnStage production of “Guys and Dolls.” It wasn’t long before they realized they had more in common than pirouettes and pointe shoes. Padon says she’d become keenly aware of the limited options available to adult dancers — specifically, those who were not members of a professional dance company. “There were very few outlets for adults,” she said. “And I wanted to change that.” Kowalick had homed in on the trend, too. “I have been wanting to bring more dance opportunities to Maui adults,” Kowalick said. “Once I met Dejah, I was excited to have a partner who was interested in the same things.”

Dejah Padon

Last spring, Kowalick and Padon concocted a plan: They would establish a new dance company, aptly named OnStage Dance Company, that would support local choreographers and dancers by creating a community experience that everyone could enjoy. “I created the Charter Dance Company because of the need to bring dance to youth who would not otherwise have the opportunity . . . my goal was to provide an outlet for kids who wanted to learn and perform,” Kowalick explained. “The same holds true for OnStage Dance Company.”

They met with Michael Pulliam, curator of the Historic Iao Theater, who suggested they debut OnStage Dance Company at the 2019 Maui Fringe Theater Festival (now in its ninth year, the three-day Maui Fringe Theater Festival serves up a performing arts smorgasbord of short plays, comedy, music and dance).

Starting a dance company from scratch is no small feat, but Kowalick and Padon were determined to make their vision a reality. After months of planning, the pair enlisted four other volunteer choreographers to design and direct original pieces for a dance revue at the Maui Fringe Theater Festival. They held an open audition in early November, and to their delight 25 hopefuls — men and women ranging in age from their mid-20s to 60s — showed up to try out; all of them were cast in the revue.

And just as Padon and Kowalick had hoped, it’s a mixed bag. “I love that this brought the community together,” Padon said. Apart from differences in age, gender and occupation, there’s a variety of styles: tap, ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary dance. Some dancers will grace the stage for the first time. Others dusted off their dance shoes and came out of retirement to perform. But they all have one thing in common. “They are passionate about dance,” Padon said.

They’ve been rehearsing since mid-November, gearing up to perform 14 dance numbers at the Maui Fringe Theater Festival. They will take the stage three times that weekend: Saturday, Jan. 19, at 2:15 and 6:15 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 20, at 3:30 p.m. “When people see it, I know they’ll want to be a part of it next year,” Padon said.

On that note, she and Kowalick say they hope to keep OnStage Dance Company up and running long after the curtain falls on the Maui Fringe Theater Festival. “We hope to have a successful run throughout the Fringe Festival and that Maui OnStage will pick up the dance company as part of their regular season for years to come,” Kowalick said. “Though Dejah and I are running this independently right now, Maui OnStage is backing up our efforts by providing us with free rehearsal space along with the branding of the name, OnStage Dance Company.”

And at the end of the day, Padon says, it’s all about the love of dance — and the power of community. “When you bring people together, great things can happen,” she said. “This is proof of that.”

The Maui Fringe Theater Festival runs Jan. 18 through 20 at the Historic Iao Theater. For more information, to view a schedule of performances or to purchase tickets, visit www.mauionstage.com or call 242-6969.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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