Debra White-Hunt has choreographed more than 50 ballets and directed more than 100 dance performances throughout her career. The co-founder and creative director of Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy has taken her students to perform across the world, from Australia to South Africa — something that seems unimaginable for some young Detroit dancers growing up in the hood.
In October 2021, she was named as an inaugural recipient of a Detroit ACE Honors medal, but that barely scratches the surface of her accolades. She’s a Kresge Live Arts Fellow, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Fellow, Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame inductee, Milken National Educator, 1990 Michiganian of the Year, Knight Foundation Finalist, and honoree of Crain’s Detroit Business’ Notable Woman in Non-Profits. In other words, she’s got it going on, and her contributions to the dance world over the last 35 years cannot be understated.
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To understand why this woman is so deserving of all the decorations she has received, you have to know her story from the beginning. It’s one of determination and the willpower to strive toward greatness.
White-Hunt’s love for dance started at a young age. She started dancing when she was 10 years old, and she has been teaching, in a way, since her teenage years.
“I used to round up the kids in the neighborhood, and I had made these little dance curtains and put them in the basement to make my own ‘studio’ down there,” she remembered fondly.
She started working as an official teacher for Detroit Public Schools in the mid-’70s after graduating from Michigan State University and spending a few years in New York. Working as a DPS teacher wasn’t quite what she thought she had signed up for, however. She was shuffled around to several different schools and often ended up teaching subjects other than dance.
“A school might only have one dance class, so I would end up teaching American history or physical education, or whatever they needed,” she said.
All that changed one year at Bates Academy, when she met a group of dedicated students who still wanted to practice dance during the summer break. White-Hunt would teach them outside at Harmonie Park downtown. Summer came and went, but the group still wanted to dance. Since she was teaching almost every subject but dance as a DPS teacher, she agreed to continue the classes as a hobby.
It was beneficial for everyone — she could teach dance, her passion, and the students got to learn. Eventually, more students started coming. Friends brought their children, word spread, and soon enough, the classes were so big that the original Bates Academy group started helping White-Hunt teach.
Though it was fulfilling, it wasn’t sustainable. She was burning the candle at both ends, teaching at her day job and after school in the park. But how could she leave her tight-knit group of dancers behind? And how could she sustain herself without a paying job? She went back and forth between quitting her job and ending the dance classes until the day she got a call that answered her prayers.
She had been selected as a Milken Educator and was awarded $25,000 in 1990. With that money, she went on a three-year sabbatical from teaching at DPS and opened her dance studio. When the three years was up, she decided to quit her job at Martin Luther King High School completely, and dedicate all of her time to Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy.
“I remember the day I had to go and turn in my letter of resignation, because there weren’t computers and all of that back then,” she reminisced. “When I came out of the school, the sun just shone so bright in my face out of nowhere. I said, ‘OK, Lord, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know you know what’s in my heart.’ That was a sign for me.”
The rest is history. Her original group of students from Bates Academy stuck with her as the dance studio grew. They were the foundation for Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy.
Naeemah J. Martin is one of those “original babies,” as White-Hunt calls them, from Bates Academy. Though she was only with the group for about two years, Martin remembers White-Hunt fondly as someone who was compassionate and warm, and who gave her students the confidence to succeed.
“It was an amazing time back then in the ’80s, prior to Detroit-Windsor. I remember our first big production we performed at Tappan Elementary School. We were so nervous, but she was so confident in us and would always tell us, ‘You got this,’ even though we didn’t think we could pull it off.”
The performance that stuck out to Martin the most, however, was at Western Michigan University, when she was in fifth grade.
“That was probably the first time I got to stay in a college dorm. It was an opportunity to perform on a big stage away from our parents and regular community, and the families of our troupe trusted her. We were gone for the whole weekend and did multiple shows and activities. Exposing us to college at that age was huge.”
Taking students to perform at college campuses was a regular part of Detroit-Windsor Dance’s programming. One of White-Hunt’s most fond memories was taking a group of 16-year old students to perform at a women’s conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2003.
“We were on a bus and we passed a little village made out of cardboard houses. The kids there were just smiling and laughing and joyful and my kids said, ‘How can they be smiling when they’re living like that?’” she said. “I just explained to them that they have different values. They are thankful to have food, and trees, and nature. Then my kids realized how fortunate they were, and it was a tremendous experience.”
Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy is temporarily operating out of the Detroit School for the Arts because its studio was damaged by flooding earlier this year. Many of the teachers are former Detroit-Windsor Dance students themselves, a testament to the bond White-Hunt has with her students.
White-Hunt also teaches a tap dance class for dancers over the age of 40 on Tuesdays. The group ranges from students in their 50s who have danced their whole lives to those in their 70s who have never done tap danced before. White-Hunt’s uplifting and encouraging spirit permeates the room and undoubtedly rubs off on her students as she invites them to do their best.
White-Hunt’s advice for others is simple: Follow your dreams.
“The dreams will come to fruition. They will, because if it’s there in your heart and your spirit to dream it, it can happen. You just have to nurture it.”
Being a student of White-Hunt’s is like “having your own superhero,” Martin said.
“A lot of people don’t take art seriously, but her story shows us that those who are creatives out here, who don’t want to do corporate work, can be profitable by just being an artist and doing what they love. She deserves everything that she has received, and she is still pouring her heart into that passion.”
For more information about Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy’s class schedules, click here.