he 40th anniversary of Boston College Dance Ensemble carries with it history, traditions, and hundreds of alumni names, stories, and performances. The group’s passion for performance—specifically jazz and contemporary dance, with many members having honed their skills through backgrounds in ballet—remains a constant throughout BCDE’s long trajectory.
But this anniversary not only commemorates BCDE’s establishment, it also celebrates the emergence of the entire student-run dance scene at Boston College. Since 1980, the dance community on campus has expanded to 16 ensemble groups.
“[The dance community] is such a hidden gem at BC—and I had no idea coming in,” said current director of BCDE Megan Laakso, CSOM ’20.
From Masti to Sexual Chocolate to Dance Organization of Boston College, the dance community at BC has grown to encompass groups that perform a wide variety of dance styles. But back then, BCDE was the only group of its kind.
Started by Laurie Del Guercio, née Kirkegaard, BC ’82, BCDE was the first student-run dance group on BC’s campus. Growing up with a dance background in ballet and jazz, Kirkegaard said that it only felt natural for her to perform at BC. After transferring into BC the second semester of her sophomore year, she noticed that although there were other student-run organizations on campus, none of them were devoted to dance.
At the time, BC only had two dance groups, which were run by outside choreographers: the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble—which performed at University liturgy services, such as the Palm Sunday and Baccalaureate masses—and a modern dance group. Although she admired the focus of these two groups, Kirkegaard said she wanted to reinvent BC’s dance scene.
“I really had a different vision: I wanted to create an extremely dynamic [dance] group, with both men and women, that was all aspects and disciplines of jazz, ballet, tap, [and] musical comedy,” Kirkegaard said.
There was a need for an extensive dance program at BC, she said—one that fulfilled students’ wide-ranging interests and provided opportunities for them to choreograph pieces and assume leadership roles.
As the first director of BCDE, Kirkegaard and other appointed board members insisted the group would be a student-run and student-choreographed program—a system that requires a careful balance between artistic drive and fundraising. It became clear to Kirkegaard that she not only had a knack for dance, but for business too. She would eventually integrate this medley of skills into her nonprofit consulting firm, NPL Impact Consulting. Kirkegaard said she draws back on her dance roots for design concepts and her fundraising experience for promoting nonprofits.
ut Kirkegaard still needed a student choreographer. By chance, Kirkegaard met Laurie Piro, née Rovtar, BC ’83, who had a background choreographing in New Jersey, in an acting class at BC. Rovtar became the first student choreographer for BCDE.
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rmed with an ambitious vision and a wide range of skills, Kirkegaard’s decision to create a dance group received strong support from BC administrators and students. Kirkegaard said the University president at the time, Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., was also a major advocate for BCDE.
When BCDE held its first auditions, over a hundred men and women tried out. The BCDE board accepted 37 members into the ensemble.
“Based on how many people came to the auditions, there was definitely excitement and enthusiasm for a high-spirited form of dance [on BC’s campus],” Kirkegaard said.
BCDE emerged as a group created by and for students, but also as a team focused on perfecting its technique and performance, exposing dance to the BC community, and challenging students in the ensemble to diversify their skills and talents.
At its start, the club coordinated two annual on-campus performances, but they also performed at off-campus venues—in a nightclub across from Fenway Park and even at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk (MCI-Norfolk), where Kirkegaard was volunteering for PULSE at the time. BCDE also hired guest teachers and choreographers to teach technique classes to the group, as mastering fundamental skills was crucial to its dance style.
Although the group’s dance style was based on jazz and ballet, two genres that remain the source of its identity today, Kirkegaard said BCDE also experimented with “stretch pieces”—punk-rock, modern, and avant garde themed dances, and crowd-pleaser productions that pulled inspiration from pop culture.
BCDE’s experimental dance style started to incorporate hip-hop elements in the early 2000s, a period when Karen Carberry, former director of BCDE and BC ’04, was involved with the ensemble. At the time, BCDE grew to 40 members, including a few men.
“[BCDE] became more than about the dancing,” Carberry said. “It became … a place to grow artistically.”
Before she knew of BCDE, Carberry was planning on taking dance classes in Boston to keep up with her training. She had grown up with a dance background in ballet, jazz, and tap. But after discovering BCDE consisted of students who came from similar intensive dance backgrounds, she joined the ensemble instead. BCDE also gave her the opportunity to experiment with choreographing.
“[BCDE] gave me a jumping board to really start to experiment, work with people, [and] choreograph,” Carberry said.
lthough she attended BC to study finance, Carberry always wanted to pursue dance, she said. After graduating in 2004, she paved her own path, moving to Los Angeles to begin her professional dance career. After dancing for two years in L.A., and then two years in New York City, she decided to move back to Massachusetts to work at her mother’s studio, Nancy Chippendale’s Dance Studio, which also celebrated its 40th anniversary this past year.
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arberry, whose first experience with choreographing was with BCDE, went from composing one or two pieces each semester to choreographing 50 to 75 pieces every year at Nancy Chippendale’s Dance Studios, as well as at American Dance Company and American Tap Company, both of which are based in Massachusetts. Carberry taught three of BCDE’s current ensemble members when they were younger.
In the spirit of tradition, BCDE invited Carberry back to campus this past fall to teach a technique class—an experience that Carberry considers one of her top dance moments.
“It’s amazing to think about the decades that have passed and how the Dance Ensemble has withstood the test of time,” Carberry said. “I think that’s a testament to the bonds within the community.”
Today, Laakso serves as the director of BCDE, which continues to be completely student-run and student-choreographed. The all-female group consists of 28 members, including nine board members. With practices in the Brighton Dance Studio three times a week, members dedicate roughly 12 hours each week to dance, not including additional hours of practice they hold when preparing for shows.
Members are not only devoted to the program, but to each other. Many of the dancers are roommates, and Laakso said BCDE prides themselves on the sisterhood they’ve created. BCDE’s current publicity director Isabel Garber, MCAS ’21, said it’s not lost on both current and former BCDE members that the 40th anniversary of BCDE is a huge milestone for the group.
In honor of the anniversary, Laakso said the current board members of BCDE wanted the theme of their annual spring show, set to take place on March 13 and 14, to reflect the significance of this event. As a symbol of their program’s legacy, they named their show Iconic.
“[Iconic] is kind of open to interpretation because we just want to highlight how proud we are that [BCDE has] lasted this long,” Laakso said.
‘Iconic’ could also be a reference to BCDE’s steadfast traditions. Jazz and contemporary dance remain BCDE’s predominant dance styles, but they still experiment with other styles, such as hip-hop, from time to time. Most of their dancers grew up with competitive dance backgrounds, many in ballet.
CDE still invites choreographers to teach classes, and Kirkegaard’s fundraising principles have transitioned into an updated mission: All the proceeds from BCDE’s performances are now donated to the Boston College Campus School, a nonprofit day school for students ages 3 to 21 with multiple disabilities.
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aakso said current BCDE members are also close with BCDE alumni, and this anniversary welcomes the opportunity to connect with alumni from BCDE’s earliest days. Garber, who has been contacting BCDE alumni about the ensemble’s 40th anniversary, said she has realized that across the years, those involved with BCDE still recognize the impact the program had on their lives.
“I can see just how special the team has been to people since the very beginning,” Garber said. “It’s good to know that the original message [of BCDE] and the family it’s created continues each year.”
When BCDE was founded in 1980, it set a precedent for future dance groups at BC: It created a space for students to not only perform, but to choreograph.
Now with a litany of other dance groups on BC’s campus, the dance scene has shifted to include an even greater array of talented students, and recognizes diverse styles of dance, from step to Latin to swing.
“Dance is an escape,” Laakso said. “It’s both an exercise and an art, and it’s the only thing I really know that’s like that.”
Featured Images by Leo Wang / Heights Staff