There may be no bigger example of a community Christmas pageant in the East Valley than the "Spirit of Christmas" show in Chandler.
The 23-year-old variety show, organized each year by Tempe Dance Academy's Christian Dance Company, features more than two hours of elves, reindeer, toy soldiers and other seasonal characters singing and dancing to lush backdrops of snowy villages and twinkly Christmas trees.
"It's very holiday, very grandiose, very Broadway. The first half of the show is all Mr. and Mrs. Claus, ‘White Christmas,' a live horse pulling a carriage - the ‘Santa' version of Christmas. And the second act is the Nativity and ‘Oh Holy Night' and peace on Earth around the world," says Gale Johnston, an Ahwatukee volunteer who helps organize the show.
About 100 performers sing and dance in the production, most of them current and former students of Tempe Dance Academy, which served as opening act for the national tour of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular when it came earlier this month to Glendale's Jobing.com Arena.
Schooled by Tempe's Wanda Manville, the academy's owner and a former ASU dance instructor who's been teaching dance for 57 years, many of the performers are now professional dancers with outfits such as Cirque du Soleil, the New York City Ballet and the Rockettes. One former pupil tours as a backup dancer with pop star Lady Gaga.
"They're mainly kids who have come up through the ranks at the neighborhood dance studio, and they come back every year," says Johnston, adding that the children of some dancers are now performing in the show.
Manville says that though the show's dancers come from all different faiths, they make a point to highlight the Christian meaning of the holiday for the audience.
"Before we start the show, we have a prayer and acknowledge the real meaning of Christmas. It's not a preachy thing, but it just reminds you of the meaning of Christmas and gets you in the spirit," she says.
"It reminds people of the ‘Lawrence Welk Show,' a family variety show. And everybody that comes winds up coming back the next year and bringing more people back with them. We have people calling us in January for tickets to the next December's show."