Berklee Stars Dance for a Cause

The Conservatory's first annual Dancing with the Stars: Berklee Edition raised more than $12,000 for a new Dance Division scholarship.

February 7, 2020

The Richard Ortner Studio Building at Boston Conservatory at Berklee saw a different kind of dance performance recently, as nine members of Berklee’s faculty and staff paired up with Conservatory Dance Division faculty members and student backup dancers for a showcase with a great cause. The first annual Dancing with the Stars: Berklee Edition raised more than $12,000 toward a new dance scholarship for continuing students, and provided plenty of entertainment to a packed house. 

The event was the brainchild of Mila Thigpen, chair of the Dance Division, who has been searching for ways to support students who are struggling financially. The event kicked off efforts to endow a new scholarship called the Dance Division Faculty Award, which will provide funding to returning students in good academic standing who have demonstrated financial need.

“The most stressful part of my job is talking to students who are doing well here but can’t afford to continue their education,” said Thigpen. “This scholarship will help make it possible for them to complete their studies.” Starting in fall 2019, Thigpen and several of her fellow dance faculty members have also begun donating a portion of their paychecks to support the scholarship. 

After just eight hours of preparation over two weeks in January, each contestant performed a two-minute routine to music of various styles and genres. Many contestants were accompanied by student backup dancers from the Conservatory. Dance Division faculty members served as choreographers and coaches, with some of them participating in the dance routines themselves.

Berklee President Roger H. Brown (right) and Francois Noel performed a salsa routine.

Image by Ben Pu

The evening was cohosted by Julia Cuellar, senior administrative coordinator for the Conservatory's Music Division, and Brian Calhoon, director of recruiting for the Conservatory. The two hosts provided commentary between routines and asked questions of each contestant while the judges deliberated. 

After an introduction by Cuellar and Calhoon, the competition kicked off with Linda Embardo, technology training and communications manager, who performed a routine choreographed by Margaret Falcone (B.F.A. ’19, dance), administrative assistant in the Dance Division, dressed as a circus ringleader. Event judge Cathy Young, senior vice president and executive director of Boston Conservatory at Berklee, called Embardo “the lion tamer of technology.” Rob Lagueux, associate vice president for academic affairs and also a judge, added that if Embardo took her routine on tour, her student backup dancers would have to be called “the 2238 dancers” (a reference to Berklee's technology services extension), since “they provided a lot of training and support.”  

President Roger H. Brown was the second contestant, performing a salsa routine with Francois Noel, assistant professor of dance. In their post-routine interview, Brown praised Noel’s skill as a teacher, saying, “If he can teach me to do this in a week, imagine what he does for our student dancers!”

Andy Chau (center)

Image by Ben Pu

Andy Chau, associate director of career services, wowed the crowd by appearing in a waist-length red wig and boots with stiletto heels, leading Young to call him “the king of Career Services” and liken him to Ginger Rogers, who famously danced backward and in high heels.

Chris Kandus-Fisher

Image by Ben Pu

Chau’s routine was followed by that of Chris Kandus-Fisher, vice president of Student Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion, who danced with two students to “Hit the Road, Jack.” Kandus-Fisher, a former competitive cheerleader, raved about his student compatriots, saying, “They’re amazing. They helped me take risks.” 

Maria Cabané

Image by Ben Pu

Maria Cabané, assistant director of health and wellness, called her experience as a contestant “amazing and terrifying.” Lagueux commended her performance, saying, “You looked like a sun of joy with students orbiting you.”

Tia Fuller

Image by Ben Pu

Professor Tia Fuller, the only faculty contestant, executed a high-octane routine, wearing sky-high heels encrusted with rhinestones. “These are my Grammy-nomination shoes,” she said. Calhoon asked Fuller, who has been the featured saxophonist with Beyoncé on tour, how it felt to dance to Queen Bey’s music instead of playing it (the routine included “Déjà Vu”). “It’s a lot harder than I thought!” exclaimed Fuller. “I have mad respect for these students.” The judges also had mad respect for Fuller, whose performance earned three perfect scores of 10 and the moniker “fierce” from Larry Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. 

Betsy Newman (center) danced to "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend."

Image by Ben Pu

Dressed in a bright pink satin dress and matching elbow-length gloves, Betsy Newman, senior vice president for student enrollment and engagement, took her turn as Marilyn Monroe, dancing to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” with Brian McGinnis, associate professor of dance. “You were born to play this part!” gushed Lagueux, and Simpson added, “You were made for this! Fantastic.” 

Lacretia Johnson Flash and Kurt Douglas

Image by Ben Pu

Lacretia Johnson Flash, assistant vice president for diversity and inclusion, danced an elegant, passionate tango with Kurt Douglas (B.F.A. '01, dance), associate professor of dance, prompting Young to praise her performance as “stunning.” Douglas shared his enjoyment of dancing with Flash, saying, “To share what we do is amazing,” and Flash returned the compliment, calling Douglas “generous and kind.” Simpson summed up the audience reaction: “That was magic.”

Joe Dreeszen, associate director of alumni affairs, wrapped up the competition with a hip-hop routine alongside Jazelynn Goudyassistant professor of dance, which Young called “powerful and virtuosic.” Goudy admitted to being a bit intimidated to work with Dreeszen after seeing online videos of a flash mob at his wedding. 

Judges Larry Simpson (from left), Cathy Young, and Rob Lagueux gave Fuller and Flash perfect 10s.

Image by Mike Spencer

Audience members were encouraged to cheer loudly for their favorite teams, and some had come prepared with handmade signs. Embardo received the Impact Award at the end of the night for having raised the most money, and the Audience Choice Award was split between Newman and Dreeszen. The coveted Mirror Ball Trophy, for the highest scores, also went to two contestants: Flash and Fuller, who each received straight 10s from the judges. 

Thigpen grew emotional when she came up to present the awards, saying, “I’m overwhelmed with joy.” She thanked the contestants, the faculty members, the student backup dancers and event volunteers, and everyone who worked to make the evening possible. 

To donate to the Dance Division Faculty Award, please visit the Boston Conservatory giving page, select “Other,” and specify “Dance Division Faculty Award.”

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