An Interview with Design Dance Founder, Debra Giunta
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.
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.