Stars Align for Dance Division Fundraiser
It took a year longer than anticipated, but Dancing with the Stars: Berklee Edition made a rousing return to campus in January 2022, after a pandemic-related delay. The popular fundraising event featured many of Berklee’s most beloved personalities competing live before a panel of judges. This year’s event raised more than $37,000 for the Dance Division Faculty Award, which provides assistance to dance students of high academic standing who are struggling financially.
“We weren’t even done with the curtain call on our inaugural event in 2020 when we started dreaming up this one,” said Mila Thigpen, chair of the Dance Division. Due to social distancing requirements, the event could not be held in 2021. But organizers were able to make a go of it this year, with all participants masked and the entire event broadcast live on the college’s website.
Eight brave contestants, each with little to no dance training, performed routines that were choreographed and coached by dance faculty members. The performances were judged both kindly and comedically by Dr. Lacretia Johnson Flash, vice president of diversity and inclusion; Rob Lagueux, associate vice president for academic affairs; and Cathy Young, senior vice president and executive director of Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Emcees Andy Chau, director of career engagement, and Linda Embardo, technology training and communications manager, kept the event—and the one-liners—flowing.
Rosemary Dowling, director of campus life, kicked off the show in a top hat and tails, tap dancing to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” alongside a trio of student dancers and coach Denise Pons, professor of dance. Dowling, who’d never so much as worn tap shoes before, mastered the routine in less than a week. Judge Young praised Dowling’s “great sense of wit” and “Fred Astaire–like cool.”
My favorite part of doing what I do is sharing the love of movement.
—Kurt Douglas B.F.A. ’01, associate professor of dance
Damien Bracken, dean of admissions, danced to his original song “Don’t Stop Now” in true classic-rock style with sweeping arm gestures and fist pumps. Like a front man playing to a packed arena, Bracken led an ensemble of four other dancers, including his coach, Margaret Falcone B.F.A. ’19, Dance Division administrative coordinator.
In her critique, Young told Bracken, “I understand, now, how year after year we bring the most wonderful, greatest students in the world to this school. It’s your passion. It’s your commitment. It’s your energy.”
Playing the role of snarky judge, Lagueux added: “I think you did a great job not obstructing my view of the other dancers.”
Candice Brown, associate professor of theater, performed to “Reclaiming My Time” with “languorousness” and “sensuality,” according to judge Young. Her coach, Kurt Douglas B.F.A. ’01, associate professor of dance, told viewers how much he enjoyed working with Brown. “My favorite part of doing what I do is sharing the love of movement,” he said.
Dr. Jonathan Bailey Holland, chair of composition, contemporary music, and core studies, performed with his coach and choreographer, Francois Noel, assistant professor of dance. The duo danced to “Old School Mash-Up,” a tune that merged James Brown with Run-D.M.C., culminating in a Kid ’n Play–style kickstep.
Flash praised Holland’s commitment to the character-driven performance. “You invited us into your world, and that world is filled with coolness incarnate,” she said. Lagueux shared her enthusiasm. “I haven’t seen a transformation like that since Bangkok Thai restaurant became a COVID testing site,” he quipped.
But the biggest transformation was yet to come, when Debbie Cavalier, senior vice president of online learning and continuing education, took to the stage with her partner, Brian McGinnis, associate professor of dance. A Grammy-nominated performer of children’s music, Cavalier somehow shed that persona and channeled her inner Joan Jett, clad in biker’s leather and sporting a formidable black wig.
“You truly inhabited this completely different character—one that, frankly, I’d like to see in meetings more often,” Lagueux told her.
Roya Hu, senior director of faculty development, danced a “Back to School” medley with her partner and coach, Ruka Hatua-Saar White, assistant professor of dance. Dressed like a pair of nerdy middle-schoolers, they performed an energetic routine that received a nearly perfect score from the judges for “big, physical risk taking.”
“There was a moment where I thought you were dancing a little harder than your partner,” Flash told Hu. “You definitely were trying to school somebody.”
The coveted mirror ball trophy was awarded to Stefanie Henning, associate vice president of career and digital strategy, and her partner Gianni Di Marco, professor of dance. The pair shimmied and swung through a 1960s-style routine, looking “absolutely fabulous together,” according to Young, who added, “There was a lot of precision in what you did, which was really beautiful rhythmically and also physically.”
The audience choice award went to Tonya Butler, chair of the Music Business/Management Department, for a “take-no-prisoners” routine set to “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” by Gladys Knight and the Pips, incorporating elements of classic soul and disco. Jim Viera, associate professor of dance, choreographed and coached Butler, who dedicated the performance to her late mother.
“In life, you cultivate this spirit of camaraderie and that came through in the performance,” said judge Flash. “The energy, the joy, the love—it just comes through.”
Speaking during the awards ceremony, Thigpen was moved to tears not only by the generosity of donors but also by the emotional significance of the event’s return to stage after a difficult year off. “Our students are not just the future of professional dance,” she told viewers, “but they are also the healers and humanitarians that are so vital to our society.”
A fundraising Impact Award was presented to Henning for receiving the most donations: 88. Cavalier, who single-handedly raised $17,000, also received an Impact Award for most dollars contributed. Due to the generosity of donors, the scholarship reached viability two years ahead of schedule, according to Thigpen. The first-ever Dance Division Faculty Award will be presented this coming fall.