Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice >> An Interview with Scholar and Trailblazer, Toni Shapiro-Phim

Toni Shapiro-Phim, Cambodia, Free Body Project

Dancers perform for fellow Cambodian refugees in Site 2 Camp in Thailand. Photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim. 

What called you to the field of dance and social justice? 

I wouldn’t say that I was called to a particular field. I would say that a confluence of events, circumstances, communities and individuals I observed and with whom I came in contact called to me.

In the late 1980s, I was working in Indonesia in a refugee camp on the island of Galang, mainly with people who had escaped from Vietnam. Among the 10,000 Vietnamese – all of whom had endured a dangerous journey by boat, many robbed and some raped by Thai pirates en route – I saw a lot of poetry writing, painting, and woodcarving as people waited in the camp to see if and where (to what country) they would be resettled. On the other side of the same island were people who had escaped from Cambodia. Maybe 300 or so.

The Cambodians had recently suffered a genocide; almost everyone had lost loved ones, their homes, their ways of life. They didn’t know what was happening the next day or what they would do about their kids’ education and, yet, they were teaching their kids to dance. They were making dance and music a priority and I was totally blown away by that. I had studied dance since I was young, so perhaps that’s why, in part, I took particular notice of this.

After a year in Indonesia, I left to work in a refugee camp housing more than 100,000 Cambodians, located in Thailand, just across Cambodia’s western border. There I witnessed the same overwhelmingly powerful resonance of movement and music as resources for people in a situation of displacement and violence. (The camp was in a war zone: the conflict in Cambodia often spilled over onto Thai territory.) I conducted research inside Cambodia, too, during and after the war that ended in 1991, paying attention to dance in post-conflict times as well.

I tried to find ways to piece together a path of study for myself so that I could be supportive of people in ways that would help them sustain and build practices that they found vital, and that would draw attention to the inhumanity of war, the plight of refugees, the broader systems that perpetuate suffering, and ways in which the arts offer constructive paths to compassion, reconciliation and justice. 

Do you feel that you had a hand in creating this field?

I was at a conference, a dance conference, and there was a panel where people were talking about dance and refugees and I thought, I’ve been doing this for years. I was so excited, actually heartened, to find that someone had organized a panel around the topic. I introduced myself to the panel convener, Professor Naomi Jackson, and soon after that Dr. Jackson invited me to co-edit a book with her, which became our 2008 publication, Dance, Human Rights and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion

It was lovely to find links with others. For the longest time I didn’t feel that I was part of an intentional field of inquiry. I was trying to put things together on my own. 

How did you mold such a unique path for yourself? 

While I was working in the refugee camp in Thailand, I decided that I would like to go back to the US to do some graduate work to explore the phenomena of the aesthetic, spiritual and political potency of dance in the dire circumstances in a refugee camp, and in a war zone, following a genocide.

When I sent my handwritten letters from rural Thailand to my undergraduate professors to ask for advice, some who replied suggested that Cornell would be a good place for graduate studies since it has a superb collection of materials from and about Southeast Asia in its library. When I got the catalogue (this was pre-Google)… I didn’t know what to focus on because what I was observing and what I wanted to explore more deeply touched on so many things: history, religion and spirituality, dance and theater, ethnomusicology, political science, human geography… all kinds of things were possible. I saw “anthropology,” which was described as the study of humankind. I thought that was broad enough for my inquiry. And that’s the degree I pursued.

What was it that you discovered during your PhD studies around the world?

A million things. (And I continue to discover…) As one example, I would say that for Cambodians, dance that is recognized now as classical or of the court tradition has a lot to do with the spirits of the land. Cambodians grow up feeling connected to the spirits of the land, the actual earth of Cambodia. Since that is represented through a sacred serpent, which is recreated through a dancer’s body, dance marks and protects the land and makes it Cambodian.

At the moment when people were in exile and their world was in chaos, here was a kind of literal grounding and beauty that they could bring to their communities for extended moments and they – ordinary Cambodians, not professional dancers -- chose to do that.

Did you find that you weren’t taken seriously in your field because it has to do with dance? 

It’s interesting you ask that about way back then because, just this past week, I was part of a group of scholars developing a book project about the aftermath of mass violence in diverse locations around the world. I was the only one particularly engaged with the arts. (I was, indeed, proposing to write about dance.) I felt from some of the participants that what artists were doing wasn’t taken as seriously as some other initiatives, post mass violence, just from the way the discussion was going. What I was talking about was what people themselves chose to do as opposed to some outside entity saying, “Here’s a formula for how to get yourself back together after conflict.” However, there is promising institutional recognition: new degree programs at colleges and universities across the country focus specifically on the exploration of the arts in relation to social transformation. 

Social activists have long appreciated dance's potency as a source of social change, and I think that synergy has gotten stronger over the years. 

Toni Shapiro-Phim, Free Body Project

Toni Shapiro-Phim directing a new film highlighting four women who use traditional song and movement to build peace in Liberia and the United States. Photo by Kathleen Norton.

Does dance have wider implications for issues such as gender equality, the refugee crisis, or ongoing violence? 

Of course. But what those implications might be completely depends on the dance, who's dancing or participating in other ways (in a ritual, performance, demonstration, celebration, competition or game, etc.) and why. 

How do you describe this unique field? 

What I have found is that in many circumstances, when people are ground down by the inhumanity, danger and chaos around them, they choose to participate in a certain form of expressive culture because it is, at that moment, something they can’t live without. Sharing in a dance event of a particular kind helps them feel more fully alive and connects them to community (whether cultural or other), creating meaning and refuge in situations of total disconnect and peril. 

For some in the United States, dance is thought of as either a staged thing or something to participate in at a party or in a club. At least in mainstream media, dance in these contexts is often presented as fluff, peripheral to everyday life, rather than something consequential. Choreography about injustice, exclusion or inequity -- or uncommon/unexpected/subversive casting in a performance -- are approaches to work at the nexus of dance and social justice efforts that can inspire conversations, waking people up to systems of oppression in which they are embedded, and to resources for countering them. Theatrical, as well as social and other kinds of dancing can be catalysts for bringing people together for collective action, acknowledging threats to or violations of safety and dignity and establishing (even temporary) sanctuary. There are many other approaches as well.

During the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile, thousands of people alleged or assumed to be enemies of the state were disappeared. Women, who had historically not been prominent in public political discourse, took to the street and danced the cueca sola. This was a dance that the Pinochet regime itself had declared to be the country’s national dance. It’s a couples’ dance and very flirtatious. A man and a woman with a handkerchief that each holds onto dance to a lively rhythm and acknowledge each other with smiles. 

The women turned the dance, with its great symbolic power, on its head. In the plaza, they danced this couples’ dance solo, with images on their shirts of their disappeared loved ones. A very potent statement about grief and anger: bring back my loved one. This drew international attention that added to the condemnation of the regime. That’s, to me, an example of dance and social justice work brilliantly and poignantly conceived of and carried out by people for whom there were high stakes in changing the situation. 

What advice do you have for those of us who are interested in learning more about or pursuing work in the field of dance and social justice? 

One ethical way to approach any field is to pay attention to what’s important to people. If indeed we recognize that dance (however it is defined in any given community) holds some kind of place of prominence in terms of cultural expression for a certain group, it behooves us to take the time to look at how they might even, quietly, outside of the public radar, be engaging with dance in ways that help them counter loss, isolation, power imbalances or trauma, or that help them celebrate the subversion of oppression.

It’s also critical to note that in some cultural communities, dance and music are pretty much inseparable: one almost never exists without the other. In those cases, sound in all its complexity has to be incorporated into the conversation. Plus, nowadays, there’s an increasing merger in some places of dance with visual arts, architecture, new media and so on. Thus, we must look at the fullest picture we can of dance in a given context.

I hope we all work hard to recognize and challenge biased assumptions – our own and those of others. Acknowledge that people choose to do the things that matter to them, and that, at the same time, authorities might usurp the power of dance-that-matters by forcing people to do things in ways that support an oppressive regime. (In what was formerly the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people were threatened with physical violence if they didn’t dance publicly in honor of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and his family.) Become comfortable asking questions when people seem to be comfortable answering them. Be cognizant of one’s relationship to individuals and communities with whom one engages, in terms of privilege. Recognize the intersections of overlapping justice concerns, and how identities and systems of oppression also overlay one another. Read a lot and write a lot so that we, together, develop potent and inspiring vocabulary with which to explore this nexus of social justice and dance. Become active locally with individuals and organizations you admire and trust, to push for constructive change.

Toni Shapiro-Phim received a PhD in cultural anthropology from Cornell University. Her dissertation, books and other publications focus on the history and cultural context of dance and music around the world, with a specialization in Cambodia, particularly in relation to violence, migration, conflict resolution and gender concerns. She's held teaching and research appointments at the University of California-Berkeley, Yale University and Bryn Mawr College, and worked in Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese refugee camps in Indonesia and Thailand. Co-editor of Dance, Human Rights and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion, she has also contributed to Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide and The Choreography of Resolution: Conflict, Movement, and Neuroscience. Her most recent book, Talking Dance: Stories from the South China Sea, was published in 2016. Currently, she is serving as Director of Programs at the Philadelphia Folklore Project, She is completing a documentary film, Because of the War, about Liberian women singers who harness the power of their art for anti-violence efforts. 

  Photo by Nalani Mehra Phim

Photo by Nalani Mehra Phim

Fostering Dreams Through Dance >> An Interview with Founder, Melanie Buttarazzi

Melanie Buttarazzi, Free Body Project

Tell us a bit about you and dance. 

I’ve been dancing since the age of 4; I studied tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, modern, flamenco, latin and ballroom. I was on so you think you can dance Canada as a top 18 contestant.

After I finished university, I was on tour with my father who is a musician. I danced flamenco in his shows. He did a tour through California and on his last night, I said to him backstage, “Dad, I don’t think I’m coming home with you tomorrow.” I stayed. I made some friends, I got an agency, I found an apartment, and the rest is history.

Then in 2014, I woke up one day and my whole life shifted.  I was sitting on the edge of the bed in my Betty Boop pajamas thinking to myself, I have to do something more. I had an idea to use dance as a tool to help underprivileged kids and at-risk youth find their voice.

Why were you driven to work with children and youth?

When I was growing up, I had the realization that it wasn’t fair that other kids didn’t have the same access to dance or to other things in life that I did. I wanted to do something to give young people opportunities they might not otherwise have. 

Shorty after realizing I wanted to do something to give back, I registered for a leadership program.  During the first day of the leadership program, each person had to go up to the mic and say what they would like to do as a project to better their community. I walked to the mic and said I want to create a program to teach dance to underprivileged youth so that more kids could have the same access to dance that I did.

How did you create your organization? 

That night after my first leadership class, I met a young man named Sixto who is an advocate for foster youth; he had spent time in the system himself. He told me his story and what he thought other foster youth go through, the trauma that they face daily. He spoke about how many turn to the streets, to the wrong crowds, or to drugs and alcohol abuse because they don’t feel like they have an outlet. During our conversation, he said, “I know I don’t know you very well but I know that you have to do this. These kids need you to do this.” I froze, and all I replied was “Okay.” That’s when Fostering Dreams Project was born. 

When I started to put this whole thing together, I reached out to choreographers who inspire me and I began to formulate a team. I loved creating something out of nothing and learning as I went. It wasn’t easy, but I found mentors so I wasn’t walking in completely blind. It was a wonderful experience; I discovered a lot about myself, the foster care system, and what the youth go through. 

Unless they become adopted, foster youth tend to go from group home to group home. That life is difficult as there is no sense of stability, family, love, support or grounding. When I created Fostering Dreams, I knew that the program wouldn’t just be teaching dance, making people happy and then leaving. I wanted to connect. I want students to feel safe, loved and a sense of belonging. Even if they don’t feel that outside of the dance class, at least they have something to look forward to in the class.

What have you learned about the foster care system through this journey that others might not know?

I’ve learned that it’s broken at the roots. I don’t know how to do that but that’s where it needs to be fixed. There are a lot of different programs for these kids and they need as much love and support as they can get. They’re faced with a lot of trauma. Some of them are born into their biological families and their parents are unfit to raise them and they’re faced with neglect and in the system, they’re placed in different group homes. It hurts to know that from such a young age, they’re faced with so much hardship. 

Although I want dance to change the world, I know that one thing can’t change everything- it’s people coming together that can make a change. It takes a village. I hope to inspire many people out there in different cities, in different countries, to do the same: to give back through dance. 

What is it about dance and movement that is so engaging for the youth you work with? 

Dance is a language; it’s speaking without words. That alone is so therapeutic. You can let movement do the talking and you can release your pain, frustration, happiness and sadness. That’s why I dance. For me it’s therapeutic. For kids who have gone through so much, they need a healthy outlet so they can release trauma in a physical way. Most of the time, the energy comes out in anger, through fights or by using drugs. Dance is a healthy release. 

Free Body Project_Melanie Buttarazzi

For about a year, I worked with a group of girls at a facility called Freehab, which is a free rehab center for former foster girls who have been on the streets and want to turn their lives around. What I found was that dance was helping them with their recovery. I didn’t know that it would have that big of an effect. I thought maybe it would give them a sense of release and letting go and help them get back into their bodies; it not only did that, it helped them find the confidence that they lost to believe in themselves again, to get sober and stay sober. Most of the girls registered back into school and most of them said that dance helped them stay focused. That was pretty huge. 

After five months of the program, one of the girls came up to me and said, “Melanie, do you know it’s easier for me to be on the streets, running from the cops, finding my next high, than to be in your dance class?” I looked at her in shock and confused. “My entire life,” she said, “I’ve run away from things that are hard and you never let me give up. Nobody has done that for me. You taught me discipline and I want to say thank you because now I’m enrolled in college.”  

At that moment, I knew why I started this. The classes teach life skills like accountability and team work. We had participants from Freehab do a flashmob at Venice Beach and they performed at the annual fundraiser. They had something to look forward to and they had to be accountable. I assigned a new captain each week and they had to practice on days I wasn’t there. Little things like that make you feel important. Instead of fighting with each other, they supported each other every step of the way. That is exactly what dance is supposed to do: bring people together. I want all youth to have an equal chance of not only feeling that they belong but knowing that they belong. Knowing that they’re worth it and they matter.

Learn more about and support Fostering Dreams Project here


Melanie Buttarazzi has performed at the Video Music Awards with Pitbull, and Neyo and  appeared in music videos with JLO, Pharrell. She is part of the Flamenco dance company ARDE with renowned choreographer Roberto Amaral. She has toured the world performing and choreographing for award-winning musician Robert Michaels for over a decade. Melanie performed at the 69th Cannes Film Festival at the Carlton Hotel Fashion show. Melanie has appeared in film productions both as a dancer and an actress. She been seen in numerous commercials for Budweiser, Sony, Phillips, Carnival Cruise Lines, Bud Light, and Budwiser, to name a few. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, Melanie has taught dance to children and adults around Canada and the US and Europe. Melanie was inspired to create an outreach dance program in Los Angeles The program, Fostering Dreams Through Dance, empowers and educates foster youth and at risk youth to find their voice through the art of dance. 

Free Body Project_Melanie Buttarazzi

The New Cambodian Artists

NCA Free Body Project 1

Siem Reap is best known to tourists in Cambodia as the city nearest Angkor Wat, the massive 12th century temple complex that draws over two million visitors a year. 

Despite the hype, art to be found in Siem Reap is far more diverse than ancient carvings and soaring stone structures.

Nestled back in the calm residential streets of the city is the new dance studio of the New Cambodian Artists. The group is currently made up of five female dancers who train in both classical Cambodian dance, known as Apsara dance, and contemporary dance, inspired by modern dance methodologies of the Western cannon. They describe their style as “Apsara fusion”.

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Their unique medley of traditional Cambodian movement and authentic improvisation is mesmerizing and the young dancers — four of the group are full-time students — perform with the confidence, calm abandon and focus of seasoned performers. Invited into the studio to watch a rehearsal, I was convinced the piece I was witnessing was company repertoire, something performed countless times. Instead, what I saw was created on the spot, a piece of electric, living art. 

NCA Free Body Project 3

The Founder and Artistic Director of the New Cambodian Artists is Bob Ruijzendaal, an artist originally from the Netherlands, who has worked in theater for decades. He recognized that dancers in the city of Siem Reap needed a space to develop as artists. With little funding available from the Cambodian government to develop and sustain new dance companies, performance art in Siem Reap is often geared toward tourists. A new kind of organization was needed. 10 dancers came together to form the New Cambodian Artists.

The company has grown since then, with dancers now focusing on the mission of empowering women through dance. “We think it’s very important to spread this message and spread the new art form as well,” said Company Leader, Khong Srey Neang. The first piece the company created commenting on the status of women in the country was called Swept Away. The piece tells the story of women bound by expectation and tradition to work in the home who dream of other opportunities. In 2016, the company worked with a visiting choreographer to create a piece about domestic violence in partnership with the Dignity Project through the Phnom Penh-based nonprofit, CEDAW.  The company also recently performed during UN Women's He for She Arts Week in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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The New Cambodian Artists presents a platform for expression, creativity and growth for young artists in Siem Reap. “We hope we can create something to benefit society,” said Neang. Despite the negative stigma sometimes associated with pursuing dance outside of the classical tradition in Cambodia, there is power to be found in the diligence and discipline of working for a dream. The company also maintains a focus on education and learning with the dancers working with select visiting choreographers to explore new movement styles. “If they are strong,” said Neang, “they can be role models. If they become role models, more people, especially young women, can look up to them.”

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Learn more about the New Cambodian Artists

The New Cambodian Artists at UN Women He for She Arts Week in June, 2017. 

Empowering Youth to Move in New York >> An Interview with Camille A. Brown

Camille A. Brown is a prolific dance artist, inspired and authentic in her approach to movement and performance making. I wanted to get up and dance just speaking with her. Free Body Project exists to learn more about, and share about, initiatives that use dance to empower and make change. Ms. Brown spoke to us about her take on dance and social justice and about her powerful initiatives including Black Girl Spectrum which presents a safe, movement-filled space to nurture creative citizens and bring more awareness to Black girl brilliance. 

 From  Mr. TOL E. RAncE . Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancer: Walden Nelson.

From Mr. TOL E. RAncE. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancer: Walden Nelson.

Is it the responsibility of the artist to talk about what’s happening in the world and to use their art as activism?

Above all, it is the responsibility of the artist to create the work they choose to.  Every story, concept, and perspective is needed in the world.  That’s part of the beauty of art; you’re free to share your voice in whatever way you choose. 

Some of my works have delved into highlighting our political climate, but my portfolio is diverse- demonstrated in works that range from light-hearted (“Groove to Nobody’s Business”; “Been There, Done That”) to spiritually based (“New Second Line”; “City of Rain”) and politically charged with comedic flare (“Mr. TOL E. RAncE”) to personal (“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play”).

You received a question recently about police shootings and whether or not you think about this issue while you're creating work. What is your response to this? 

My question is, are white choreographers being asked this same question? This problem of Black people being killed by police is not just affecting Black people, it should be affecting everyone. 

You have such an accomplished choreographic history. How did your outreach programs come into being?

Thank you! Black Girl Spectrum (BGS) was created during the process of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (BGLP). As a choreographer, you never know if you’re going to have a successful piece or if it will translate to audiences in the way you intended. I wanted to create an initiative that would live beyond BGLP to continue empowering Black girls of all ages through movement. Thankfully, the work is extremely successful so that both the initiative and BGLP can coexist. In order to provide participants of BGS an entry point into the world of dance, I use social dance as a way to create a space that is familiar but also educates. It is really important for me to show people that movement is a part of African and African-American tradition and culture. In order to move forward we must acknowledge it, understand it, embrace it and use it as inspiration for innovation. 

 From BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancers: Fanta Fraser & Beatrice Capote. 

From BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancers: Fanta Fraser & Beatrice Capote. 

Why is dance a relevant and important mode of communication?

In many cultures dance was the foundation for rituals, rites of passage, resistance, and celebration - specifically for the African and African-American traditions. Dance provides a space to communicate in a different way. It's the language of the body and can connect people when languages spoken may be a barrier. Look inside a community and you will see the movement of the people - through gesture, dance, music, etc.

How do we broaden a general understanding of dance?

When I’m working with people who aren’t dancers, I ask them, when you hear the word dance, do you retreat or do you walk closer? I ask them why? It’s important to figure out why people are so hesitant about dancing. People dance all the time, at parties, concerts, and other social gatherings, but to take dance out of these frames seems hard. It's important to have a conversation and show how we all move in our every day lives. There’s such beauty in how people move and communicate with each other through gesture. It opens the gateway to movement, and movement gives birth to dance.

How do you view a connection between dance and social justice ?

Movement and social justice work together. When people are marching, holding their hands up in fists, and other forms of expression, they are using their bodies. Our voices are just one part of activating a space of peace/protest. 

What has been the impact of your initiatives so far?

Each year, the initiatives grow in participants and programming. It is truly exciting! For instance, after the inaugural Gathering, we discovered a need for educational components that address the business side of dance, particularly for emerging choreographers. So, we partnered with The Field - which provides "strategic services to thousands of performing and media artists and companies in New York City and beyond"- to offer two FREE workshops prior to The Gathering to discuss items such as: business models, grant writing, budgeting, branding/social media, etc. These workshops add another layer to the overall Gathering experience. 

We have also partnered with Dance/NYC - which promotes the awareness of dance in NYC and "embeds values of equity and inclusion into all aspects of the organization." They help us with the management and promotion of The Gathering. Both organizations have been extremely generous and I'm so honored they have come on board with us. 

Black Girl Spectrum is now expanding to  Every.Body.Move, including the refinement of the Black Girl Spectrum audience engagement model and new programs to reach Black boys and men, leading up to the tour of the new work" ink." The Young Men’s Initiative expands Black Girl Spectrum’s public forums, social dance classes, and youth mentorships.

What do you want future impact to be?

Every year, we learn something new, so it's my hope they initiatives continue to respond to the needs of its community and uplift people through movement. I also want to continue to support other organizations that are doing the same kind of work and create spaces for collaboration. 

It is my hope that these initiatives activate social dance and open dialogue as a tool for visioning, storytelling, empowerment and community building. Also, to contribute to educating people about social dance and the African-American contributions to American social dance and its history.

What is the ideal for your programs?

More people engaging with Every.Body.Move and The Gathering by attending or becoming a partner to support the programmatic elements, organization of the event, and continued growth. We encourage and appreciate having our allies attend such as agents, presenters, programmers, men, women of other ethnicities, etc. We need them as well as we continue to advocate for changes that must transpire in the field.

What advice would you share with other movers who want to make an impact?

The impact starts with you. When your intentions are honest and you are speaking your truth, you will have an impact. 

Learn more at 


CAMILLE A. BROWN (originally from Queens, New York) is a prolific choreographer who has achieved multiple accolades and awards for her daring works. Informed by her music background as a clarinetist, she utilizes musical composition as storytelling and makes a personal claim on history through the lens of a modern Black female perspective. She leads her dancers through excavations of ancestral stories, both timeless and traditional, that illustrate stories which connect history with contemporary culture. Her versatility is effortlessly demonstrated in works that range from light-hearted (“Groove to Nobody’s Business”; “Been There, Done That”) to spiritually based (“New Second Line”; “City of Rain”) and politically charged with comedic flare (“Mr. TOL E. RAncE”) to personal (“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play”).

Read her full bio here. 


Camille A. Brown Free Body Project

Dance and Entrepreneurship > An Interview with Debra Giunta of Design Dance

How did you choose the name Design Dance? 

When I was a kid, my parents were graphic designers. I wasn’t a visual artist by any means; I loved to dance. I used to imagine myself owning a dance studio and I would answer a fake phone by saying, “Design Dance!” because that word was in my life. 

As I got older, I started to build an interest in choreography and dance making. When I started teaching in high school and college, I would always let my students make their own dances. I saw that, even if they didn’t have a lot of dance experience, they had a lot to say. When I started my company, I kept the name Design Dance because it’s about kids designing their own work, deciding what they want to say and building something of their own, 

When did you know that you were going to become an entrepreneur? 

When I was in college, I changed my major five times. It became clear that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but the thing that I was most excited about was teaching dance. I decided to start what I thought Design Dance would be: a studio program. 

There was a studio in my neighborhood that I started renting. Nine months in, we realized that the building had a mold problem and we had to close. I thought it was over and I was depressed. Then I started supplementing my dance classes by reaching out to local preschools. They said they only worked with vendors so I used the name Design Dance as a way to employ myself. It was almost by accident that I started working at schools and I realized that there is another way to use dance education. I also realized there are core benefits that come from movement andartistic expression that really have nothing to do with being good or bad at dance. 

As a teenager I struggled with depression and anxiety. There was so much that dance gave me to help me cope with different issues I was going through on a social and emotional level. I became passionate about how we could bring dance to communities and build access. In my family, we struggled with money and my parents always figured out a way to make it work. When I realized there’s ways to use community partnerships to offer reduced cost programming for families so that everyone can have these opportunities. I wanted to be the catalyst for making that happen. 

It was a journey that happened out of what I thought was failure. That failure opened a door to something I was even more passionate about. Design Dance will be 9 years old in April. 

How has your approach shifted over the years and what does Design Dance look like now? 

The general model has been the same for 8 years; we work with schools and community centers. We’re always evolving the programming. It used to be that we would go into schools and teach dance classes. Now we’ve done some deep diving into social, emotional learning standards and we’ve developed core values: courage, connection and self awareness. All of our programming is leading toward those three goals in the classroom. Are students connecting with each other in healthy ways, are they taking more risks in the classroom, are they developing more courage and are they able to communicate what they need?

About 4 years ago we started developing cross-curricular programming. We now partner with poets from Young Chicago Authors. We teach students how to write their own poetry and then they make dances based on their poems. We’ve done a cultural dance program where we partner with social studies teachers at schools we’re working in and we teach cultural dances that align with each of the countries the students are learning about. We’ve also started to develop some solar system and dance programming, teaching about rotation and gravity through dance, partnering with science teachers. This summer we’re partnering with kids cooking and gardening programs to teach kids about holistic lifestyle and healthy food choices.

What are the biggest challenges of having an arts-based company? 

Art is the first thing people cut. If a school can’t afford to keep their core teachers on, it’s harder for them to justify the arts. It’s fighting for something that feels, to many people, like a superfluous need. Design Dance has been able to grow by teaching schools how dance supports their core curriculum which, in a way, is watering down the value of what the arts is on its own. There’s value in just taking an arts class. 

What advice would you give to others who are interested in building an arts-based business? 

There’s a big difference between being an artist and wanting to be a business owner. I get a lot of gratification out of running a business. I love that it’s based in dance because that’s something I grew up loving. That changing my major 5 times in college thing? It’s because I want to do a lot of different work at the same time. Being a business owner allows me to dive in to marketing, strategy, managing people, mentoring, designing curriculum and sales… different things that interest me are part of my job day to day. 

Many people who are passionate about the arts think, since I’m passionate about the arts, I should start a business in the arts. The reality is, running a business is going to look different than that art form. Doing a deep dive into what you really enjoy day to day, thinking about what you want your Monday to look like, is that going to align with what it is to run an organization? If that is true, the next thing is to find a way to be self-funded.

As a creative and an entrepreneur, what are three things you do to stay organized and full of momentum? 

  • Being adaptable. Some weeks the work I’m doing requires me to be focused on time and some weeks it requires me to be really creative. Be flexible in how you set up your schedule so that you’re creating environments that will adapt to the kind of work you need to be doing. 
  • I’m really committed to always answering every e-mail within 24 hours. It makes me feel most connected to my business and makes sure that I’m not missing out on any important communication. Inbox zero is my friend. 
  • I take time to disconnect. This is something I’ve challenged myself to do. I try to do yoga several times a week. I take an entire day where I don’t look at anything. On Saturdays, if I do work, I can only work on a project I’m really excited about.

Learn more about Design Dance 


Debra Giunta is an entrepreneur, arts educator and native Chicagoan.  She is the founder of Design Dance, a company increasing access to arts programming for over 1400 students weekly.  She became director of her first dance education program in her hometown at the age of 16 and has been teaching, choreographing, directing and mentoring ever since.  In 2008, Debra founded Design Dance as a way to bring dance education to children in all communities regardless of age, experience level, background and income through partnership with schools and community centers.  In addition to her work in arts education, Debra is proud to contribute to the social entrepreneurship community through workshops and special events, as well as fellowship through the StartingBloc community.  

Questioning Society through Movement > An Interview with Artist, Chloe Calderon Chotrani

  photo by  Inez Moro

photo by Inez Moro

Tell me about the dance work that you make. Can you give a little insight into your approach to creating?

I work with the intersection of choreography, community engagement and curation. I think our responsibility is to reflect the contemporary struggle of the public. I am representing communities of color, women, and immigrants. Even my body size, I am petite, which is doesn’t always fit the pre-requisite for social constructs of a “dancer’s body”. I use that as a form of empowerment and the underlying voice that I’ve been carrying through the past years is finding power in softness.

Right now I feel it’s essential to be more vocal. There is no more neutrality. As artists, as activists, as people, as citizens in general, we have a responsibility to be aware and be proactive. Movement, dance and the arts are a powerful medium because they cross through sensations, cultures and language. 

The reason why I feel such an affinity with dance and movement is because I think we forget how our bodies mirror nature; we’re both made of the same material. We can see and think with our chest and our pelvis and our palms and our feet. We tend to become so caught up in our cerebral brain that we forget that there is kinesthetic intelligence; the body can reveal to us our heritage and our history. 

How would you describe the dance that you do?

Our generation is culturally hybrid. Even ballet has a history of indigenous forms. Everyone has their own language but not everyone is willing to dig deep and discover it. I started with ballet, then shifted to street dance for 12 years, then expanded with contemporary dance forms. At this point, I am thinking beyond the idea of genre and categories and I am more interested in excavating what my body has to offer. That’s when your own language reveals itself. It’s interesting discovering movement intuitively rather than externally. From that research you discover nuances that are so particular to your culture. For example, I’ve never studied a classical Indian dance form but in my movement there are certain Indian or Asian philosophies that reveal themselves.

Do you believe that dance connects with social justice?

Dance is how you continue culture and it is part of how you create culture. It’s a language of the human spirit. That is what social justice is; it’s about humanity. Dance is not always done with that intention, but it has the potential to be used towards justice, just like any other medium of work.

Do you consider yourself and activist?

Yes. I think we all should be! Some will be more politically active but others can activate space in their own way, starting in their own backyard.

Tell me about your piece, Unfair and Lovely and what inspired its creation? 

This was a culmination of the choreographic process I did at Gibney Dance. Unfair and Lovely is a transgression against an Indian whitening cream called Fair and Lovely. It is popular all over India, Africa and Asia – in subtle ways, it changes the mentality of people to desire to be white and to see white as a more sophisticated class. Unfair and Lovely was a social campaign started by two Indian women and a photographer, Pax Jones. I approached Pax and I said I want to turn your campaign into a performance piece that celebrates melanin.

Growing up in metro Manilla, driving down the highway, billboards would show this papaya whitening cream. All the magazines would show females with white skin and I thought, that’s not what we look like. For this performance, I gathered South Asian females and I asked them provocative questions on how they experienced race as children. Instead of asking them to answer verbally, I asked them to answer through movement. I filmed it, gathered Southeast Asian advertisements and showed the short film during the performance.

I also presented a political cartoon that reflects the forgotten US-Filipino relations. Filipino's First Bath published on June 10, 1899 on the cover of Judge magazine. President McKinley scrubs a Filipino baby with a brush labeled “education” in the cleansing waters of “civilization”. This striking image reflects how people perceive brown and black as dirty or “primitive”. I find it to be important to voice these ideas, rather than shoving them under the rug. 

What do you hope to change or achieve through your work?

We have to question what is happening out there. This is just another method of questioning how we move through the world and questioning the structures of society.

What do you think is important for more people to know about dance? 

It’s important for people to know that the body is a vessel of knowledge; it holds our blood memory, our history and our heritage. We can tap into that knowledge through movement. It’s a way of connecting to a transcendent force; that’s how you experience embodiment. Pleasure is complex, especially for females. Society sometimes teaches females to be shameful, or that pleasure is deemed as negative, especially in Asian cultures. To resist present day social constructs, sometimes allowing yourself to find pleasure in effort is enough – movement is one of the many ways we can find pleasure in our body and to feel good about ourselves. 

Learn more about Chloe Calderon Chotrani and her work. 

  photo by  Tarish Zamora

photo by Tarish Zamora

Chloe is a movement artist based in Singapore, born in the Philippines. She works with the intersection of choreography, curation and community. Holding the responsibility to reflect contemporary struggles of decolonization, race relations and feminism through workshop, media and performance. She works with the belief that artistic skills should be integrated with society as way of survival, sustainability and spirituality. Chloe has competed locally and internationally in the Philippines and Las Vegas and has performed with B Supreme in London, at Gibney Dance and Movement Research in New York and at Ecole Des Sables in Senegal. Chloe holds a Post-graduate Diploma in Asian Art History from School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She finds that cross-cultural conversations are essential to reveal aspects of humanity through her work and her life.


Inspiring Organizations in Kolkata, India Moving Against Human Trafficking

 Under the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. Vintage Nikon, 35mm film. 

Under the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. Vintage Nikon, 35mm film. 

While living in Kolkata, India for several years, I had the opportunity to learn from some incredibly inspiring change makers, social entrepreneurs and artists creating and sustaining ways to make the world  better place for survivors of trafficking and particularly, women and girls.

January is human trafficking awareness month and instead of discussing trafficking, I want to highlight the work of grassroots organizations that continue to inspire with their powerful counter-trafficking and empowerment programs. 


1. Kolkata Sanved

This amazing organization harnesses the power of dance and dance movement therapy to heal, empower and transform individuals into active citizens and change makers.

Since 2004, this groundbreaking nonprofit organizatio has been brining participatory, joyful and deeply healing classes to individuals of all ages in need of psychosocial rehabilitation and care. Kolkata Sanved works primarily with youth who are survivors of human trafficking and violence and in partnership with various organizations including shelter homes, government institutions, schools and groups operating on railway platforms. They have implemented programs in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia. Highly skilled dance therapy practitioners, many of whom are survivors of violence,  are trained by the organization and through their work become role models, healers and activists at the forefront of anti-violence and women's rights movements. 

We are currently creating a dance + documentary film with Kolkata Sanved so highlight the powerful work of their dance therapy practitioners. 

2. Hamari Muskan South Kolkata                                                                              

South Kolkata Hamari Muskan is an anti-trafficking organisation working in Kolkata since 2009. It works in the red light areas of Sonagachi and Bowbazar with the children, adolescents and women survivors to protect them from different forms of violence and abuse and to build their confidence and resilience. The growing organization has built a safe, child-friendly Day Care Learning Center which offers an array of educational classes and activities with the goal of preparing children from 2 1/2 to 6 years of age to be ready to enroll in mainstream schools. Their nutrition program, art-based therapy and counseling sessions and their impressive resilience-buildig programs which include self defense, karate, photography, music, dance, computer and even driving classes provide an impressive set of services for youth. 

3. Her Future Coalition 

Made By Survivors of now Her Future Coalition! Their mission is to provide shelter, education and employment to survivors of human trafficking and extreme abuse so they can become and remain free forever. They engage in long term, intensive interventions with the goal of financial independence. Their programs give survivors the tools to overcome tremendous stigma and to advance far above the poverty line, transforming their identity and social status. Shop their gorgeous collection of jewelry - the gifts that build futures. Each piece lovingly made by a young artisan in Kolkata. Since 2010, Her Future Coalition has offered training in goldsmithing and jewelry design to survivors and vulnerable women. They now train and employ women in three locations in India and one in Thailand with jewelers breaking gender barriers as some of South Asia's first women goldsmiths.  After completing the training, women are able to earn a wage comparable to a college graduate.  Some of the jewelers we have trained have over $15,000 in the bank!

4. The Loyal Workshop

This workshop, housed in one of Kolkata's historic buildings in the north of the city, creates stunning, ethical leather bags, each hand-crafted by a woman who chose to leave the nearby relight area. To date, the Loyal Workshop has trained and employed 18 women artisans who are now financially independent and work in a safe environment. Their leather is ethically produced and vegetable tanned to reveal each bag's natural beauty. 

5. Jeevika Development Society                                                                                                          

A community-based non-profit organization based in West Bengal, India, the organization is committed to working towards furthering the social and economic rights of women while challenging patriarchal norms and ensuring environmental sustainability. Their mandate is broad but impactful, empowering women in rural communities by promoting women's financial and social rights through the creation of a unique financial institute owned and operated by women living in 55 villages and through the establishment of Alor Disha, a group of community-based volunteers providing legal support to female survivors of violence. These are only two programs that represent a network of impressive interventions addressing gender inequality. 

I made my very first little film about one of the powerful community mobilizers working with Alor Disha.                                                                                 

6. Sanlaap                                                                                                                                              

Founded in 1987, this is one of the first anti-trafficking organization in Kolkata dedicated to providing holistic services, including psychosocial rehabilitation, to survivors of human trafficking and violence. Outside of the organization's shelter homes for youth, their mental health intervention program, their vocational training, their child protection program and other offerings, they have been researching and publishing reports on sexual exploitation.  

7. All Bengal Women's Union                                                                                                              

Possibly the oldest shelter and anti-trafficking organization in Kolkata, All Bengal Women's Union was founded in 1932. The organization serves female survivors of sexual exploitation through various programs including housing for older women, young adults and children. 

8. Blossomy Project

Blossomy curates unique, expressive arts workshops for survivors of trafficking, and those at risk of trafficking, in partnership with Kolkata nonprofits including Sanlaap and Kolkata Sanved, among many other organizations. Blossomy holds several annual programs including Expression through Rhythm and the If I Could Fly photography workshop as well as several vocational programs including their intensive photography training center, The Light Space, in partnership with photographer, Brooke Shaden


These organizations represent just a sample of the impactful work taking place in Kolkata, India. There is so much good happening in this brilliant city.  



'From There to Here' Awarded Dance Films Association Production Grant

I am thrilled to announce that our dance + documentary film in the making, From There to Here, has been chosen as a recipient of the Dance Films Association Production Grant to support our post production process! 

From There to Here has been in the making since August, 2015 with the support of a  Fulbright research grant. Over a period of 10 months in Kolkata, India, our team crafted a participatory film with the dancers, human rights activists and dance therapy practitioners of Kolkata Sanved

Kolkata Sanved is a non-profit organization offering dance and dance movement therapy as psychosocial rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking and violence across India. 

For youth who have endured trafficking or sexual violence, broader access to mental and emotional healing is urgently needed. This participatory project was created with dance therapy practitioners, many of whom are violence survivors. Through tenacity, creativity and compassion, they are improving access to mental health and wellbeing through movement for the most vulnerable in India and across South East Asia.

Blending documentary footage, interviews, improvisation and choreography crafted from themes of gender inequality that have touched the dancers’ lives, the project is a platform for their visceral stories and unique anti-violence advocacy, allowing new audiences to learn about their work and importantly, about the power of dance as a resource for social justice.


The Dance + Social Justice Conference 2016

Thank you for joining us for our second inspiring conference in NYC!! 

On Wednesday, December 7th, five inspiring leaders in the field of dance and social justice joined us and our partners, Gibney Dance and New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study to explore and discuss the various ways in which dance and movement can address pressing social issues and provide outlets for healing and empowerment for underserved youth, communities and survivors of violence. 

Both portions of the event, the experiential movement workshops at Gibney Dance's original studio at 890 Broadway and the panel discussion in Gallatin's theater space, were packed. What continues to surprise and fascinate me about this field is the breadth and depth of the impacts these artists and activists make. I'm also continually inspired by the number of people who realize the power and potential of this work (within mental health, community building, conflict resolution, anti-violence, women's empowerment, the list continues) and want to be a part of it. This is not simply about finding ways to build our own community, this is about learning of and finding new and sustainable ways to support the individuals and organizations who are working to change systems of inequality from the ground up through innovative uses of movement. 

The event began with three instructors of the Gibney Dance Community Action program leading the group through a class they teach regularly within domestic violence shelters across New York State. The classes provide an outlet for gentle movement, creativity and expression while imparting lessons of self-care for violence survivors.

We then experienced the movement modalities of dance movement therapy practitioner, Amber Elizabeth Gray, who has been pioneering dance therapy programming within the field of international development for more than two decades. In her work with survivors of torture, she uses exercises to help individuals find a safe and peaceful place within their own bodies and minds. The body can be both a temple and a minefield, she said. A site of both trauma and healing for many. 

Lastly we took a powerful journey with social practice dance artist and viral blogger, Shawn Lent who designs and implements dance-based interventions for youth, refugees and children living with cancer. 

These experiences were deepened during a thought-provoking panel discussion with: 

Amber Gray, Director, Restorative Resources Training and Consultingand Executive Director, the Kint Institute

Shawn Lent, Social Practice Dance Artist and Manager, Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Createquity

Yasemin Ozumerzifon, Senior Community Action Manager of Gibney's Community Action program

Simon Dove, Executive and Artistic Director of Dancing in the Streets 

Ana Dopazo, Program Director, Choices Alternative to Detention for the Center of Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES).


The evening was brought to a close by a surprise visit from Margie Gillis, acclaimed modern dancer and choreographer who's current teachings include dance as a vehicle for conflict transformation. 

The work of these thought leaders and social change makers is daring, deep and thoroughly inspiring. Please learn more about their organizations, the individuals and communities both local and global that they serve, and the models through which they utilize movement and dance as resources to build empathy, transform conflict, provide much needed outlets for healing and re-connecting to the body for violence survivors, provide new livelihood opportunities, support underserved youth and work against violence.


FOLLOW Free Body Project @freebodyproject on Instagram or on Facebook for more resources and news of upcoming events 

CLICK any and all of the links in yellow above for further research and reading

READ up on the incredible contributors to last year's event at the Martha Graham Dance Company Studios 

WATCH video resources from last year- Videos from December 7th coming up soon!! 

EMAIL us at to get in touch