Berklee "Stars" Show Off Their Moves for Scholarship Fundraiser
Dancing with the Stars: Berklee Edition started out as a labor of love, to raise scholarship funds for Boston Conservatory dance students who were struggling to complete their degrees due to financial difficulty. Mila Thigpen, chair of dance, had already created the Dance Division Faculty Award, so named because its initial funding came directly from dance faculty members who contributed via deductions from their own paychecks. The faculty gave generously because, as Thigpen said, “We all know that pain of working with students whose future is threatened by financial hardship.”
But the fund grew slowly, so in 2020 Thigpen spearheaded Berklee’s first-ever Dancing with the Stars contest, modeling it after the popular TV dance competition. Now in its third year, the event has quickly become a beloved tradition and a fundraising success, reaching full endowment several years ahead of schedule. The Dance Division began distributing scholarship funds during the 2022–2023 academic year—helping students stay enrolled and on track to graduate.
For contestant Heather Easley (B.F.A. '20, contemporary dance) this important cause resonates on a personal level. A few years ago, when she was a student at the Conservatory, Easley feared she might not be able to complete her studies. Prior to the existence of this scholarship, she needed to find her own way. “I realized my first year that I likely wouldn’t be able to afford four years at the school, and made it my mission to graduate a year early,” she said.
Easley found an important ally in David Dziardziel (B.M. '12, woodwind performance), then the Conservatory’s associate registrar (now director of academic planning and operations). “David was the one who really made it happen on the [administrative] side of things,” Easley said. Dziardziel went above and beyond, helping Easley finish her degree as efficiently and affordably as possible.
“My mission as an advisor for transfer students was to ensure they had a clear path toward satisfying all program requirements, preventing them from needing to unnecessarily spend additional money on tuition due to missteps along the way,” he said.
As it turns out, avoiding missteps also was Dziardziel’s mission when he took the stage at this year’s Dancing with the Stars event, performing a routine choreographed by none other than Easley. Although he’s a dance novice, the infectious, goofball energy he brought to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” won over all three judges, as well as an extremely appreciative audience.
“I’m just really touched that I was able to work with David because the whole reason we’re doing this is for a scholarship for dancers to stay [at the school],” Easley told emcee Linda Embardo, following Dziardziel’s routine.
Dziardziel was one of eight Berklee “stars” who partnered with Dance Division faculty members and alums to compete in the event. Judges Jessica Franco, guest artist and choreographer; Rob Lagueux, interim vice provost; and Tonya Butler, chair of music business/management, awarded points to the contestants based on execution, costumes, and audience impact.
Kathy Anderson, associate vice president of student financial services, kicked off the show with her partner, Georgia Lipari (B.F.A. '18, contemporary dance), a project manager in Berklee’s Alumni Affairs Department. The pair raised more than $1,300 for the scholarship fund, performing to a medley of ’80s dance hits by artists including the Pointer Sisters and Salt-N-Pepa. Judge Tonya Butler was clearly impressed—if a little surprised—by Anderson’s enthusiastic performance. “Kathy, I knew you could push paper, but I didn’t know you could push it,” Butler said.
Anderson and Lipari were followed by Krystal Banfield, vice president of education outreach and social entrepreneurship, who partnered with Francois Noel, assistant professor of dance. Their routine, fusing Afro-pop with disco, was “beautiful to watch” according to Franco and received especially high marks from judge Lagueux. “Krystal Banfield is known for being intimidatingly awesome, and I think a lot happened in this two-and-a-half to three minutes to confirm that,” he said.
Bridgette Hayes, senior project manager at the Conservatory, was joined by a cast of students for an elaborate ensemble routine, choreographed by Denise Pons, professor of dance. Clad in a sparkly red costume that she made by hand, Hayes strutted her way around a makeshift nightclub set, enacting a spy vs. spy melodrama with her fellow dancers. An experienced performer, Hayes had no trouble embodying her character. “As an actor, I’m really into storytelling,” she said. “I always have a story in my head.”
The routine received a perfect score from the judges—and ultimately won first place in the contest, earning Hayes the coveted mirror ball trophy. “Your background and your collaboration together really brought this into a full story and a full experience,” Franco said in her critique. “We, as an audience, could see all of your skills, all of your humanity, and the story being told through sets, through costume, through expression and dynamics.”
Ty-Juana Flores, director of Berklee’s Black Scholars Initiative, performed a compelling Afro-Latin routine alongside her partner and choreographer Andrea Muñiz (B.F.A. '19, contemporary dance). With a Panamanian flag pinned to her costume, Flores put her cultural background front and center. “[The dance] brought out who I am, what I represent, where my family comes from, which is Panama,” she said.
In her critique, Franco praised Flores’s highly personal approach to the performance, saying, “You speaking your truth of what feels good to you naturally—from the club, from yourself, from your family—that came out in moments where I can tell you feel amazing.”
For their routine, “Human Connection,” faculty members Kevin Wilson, associate professor of voice, and Olivier Besson, associate professor of dance, created a structured improvisation incorporating intimate physical contact, punctuated by gestures of separation. The routine earned a rave review from Franco. “[It was] like you were breathing together—one person would breathe, and the other person would also admit to needing to breathe,” she said. “There was something so truthful about the whole experience for me. I really could see so much trust.”
Cecil Adderley, chair of music education at Berklee College of Music, convinced his dance partner/choreographer that a tango was the right choice for their performance. Despite her years of experience, Margaret Falcone (B.F.A. '19, dance) had never danced tango before. “I was tang-no,” she said, “but now because of Cecil, I’m tang-go.” Adderley led his partner with “coy confidence,” according to Franco; and judge Butler agreed. “That was smoove,” she told Adderley. “Not s-m-o-o-t-h. S-m-o-o-v-e—I thought you were amazing.”
Berklee College of Music’s concert and event producer Maureen McMullan '09 closed out the show with “The Black Bottom,” an ensemble performance of the epochal ’20s dance craze, choreographed by Jim Viera. In a fringed flapper dress and heels, McMullan blew the judges away with her footwork, stamina, and unfailing smile. “Your energy was so infectious,” Butler said in her critique. “I was thinking to myself how is she still going? And still smiling?”
McMullan received a perfect score—and enthusiastic praise—for the routine. “It was so full in terms of the movements. Everything was three-dimensional,” Franco said. “It was really beyond just this space. I really felt true joy.” McMullan also received the Impact Award for most funds raised, contributing over $3,000 to the Dance Division scholarship.