Sophomore Donovyn Diaz earned standing ovation for performance in honor of his mother

Rutgers sophomore Donovyn Diaz recently struck a nerve with America’s Got Talent viewers – and judges – with his heartfelt performance of a dance he choreographed in honor of his mother, who is battling cancer.

The emotion, grace and athleticism Diaz displayed during his dance to How I Say Goodbye by Dean Lewis, which aired Aug. 9 on the NBC show, brought the audience to tears and all four judges to their feet.

“You can’t explain what it’s like to have thousands of people watching you,” said Diaz, 20, who is studying dance at Mason Gross School of the Arts. “There were a few seconds after I was done when there was complete silence. In my head, I thought, ‘Did I do good?’ Then everyone stood up, and it was a really great feeling.”

Diaz’s mom, Theresa Stefaniak, who’d never missed her son’s performances growing up, was too sick to join him in California and cheer him on during filming. Instead they watched the episode together this summer with family and friends in their Cranford home.

“To watch Donovyn dance a tribute to me on national TV was so beautiful. He did that all himself, and I was in the hospital while this was going on,” she said. “It was perfect. There was so much emotion. If you can make the audience cry, then you touched them. I love my baby with all my heart, and I’m so proud of him.”

While viewers saw a 5-minute clip of his performance followed by positive feedback from the “AGT” judges as they promoted him to the next round, Diaz said the episode only captured a fraction of his experience with the show.

“It doesn’t always look flashy and easy like it does on TV,” said Diaz. “I was there filming three days for 15 hours.”

And that was on top of the audition process, which began nearly two years ago with a video he sent to “AGT”. A year later in October of 2022, he received an invitation to his first Zoom audition for the show. Round after round he advanced. Then finally this March he got the call: he was flying out to California to appear in the show’s 18th season – while his mom was back in the hospital.

“I was really nervous when I was filming. I was in the lobby, and I could hear other people auditioning and getting buzzed. I was afraid of getting buzzed,” he said. “But I’m a performer, so if I’m going on stage, I’m going to go out and give it my best.”

Diaz took to competing early, starting gymnastics and dancing as a toddler. But around age 13, he put his focus on gymnastics. While a student at Union Catholic High School, Diaz’s goal was to one day make the Olympic gymnastics team. He made the junior Olympics team four times, but by the time he began considering NCAA college programs, Diaz said there were two factors that made him reconsider his dream.

“Making the Olympics is like winning the lottery. And even if that happened, my career after would be coaching. I didn’t want that,” said Diaz, who committed to Springfield College’s gymnastics team and attended on an academic scholarship for his freshman year before transferring to Rutgers to study dance. “There are so many more avenues in dance. Since my mom is sick, I wanted to be close to her and dance full time.”

His mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer more than 18 years ago but until 2015 was in remission. That’s when doctors found the disease had spread to her lungs and bones, causing her to go on permanent disability. Diaz knew coming back to New Jersey and keeping a scholarship would take the weight off his family. So, he threw himself back into the dance studio to see if he could make it happen.

“I wasn’t expecting much. I thought, 'I’m going to be rusty, but I’m going to try it for my mom,'” he said. “But I found with the amount of control I have over my body from gymnastics, something just clicked and dancing was effortless.”

Soon he was winning titles with a dance company and working on solos and duets with a national touring group. He landed a dance scholarship to Mason Gross toward the end of his freshman year at Springfield. Around that time, he auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance? on a whim, making it to the last round and appearing in commercials for the show. But his run ended without appearing in an episode.

“I thought, ‘If I can do that not being prepared, imagine what can I do if I am prepared?’” he said. “It lit a fire under me.”

Despite not making it to the “AGT” finale, Diaz said his appearance has catapulted his career. Teaching and performance opportunities have been pouring in from around the country – from Miami to Maine and Seattle to New York City. Now he is looking into shifting to a dance minor to pursue a degree at the School of Communication and Information.

“As a dance major, I feel the goal is to prepare me enough to get in the dance industry. And I feel I’m doing that now,” he said. “I want a dance minor because I love to dance.”

Majoring in communication will prepare him for the business side of the industry, said Diaz, who plans to make a name for himself as a professional dancer and teacher before pursuing a career as a choreographer and eventually owning his own dance competition.

“I’m pushing to do this so she doesn’t have to worry that I can take care of myself,” said Diaz of his mom. “She can see she raised a star, and everything she sacrificed for me didn’t go out the door. I took what she gave me and ran with it.”