Debra White-Hunt is ready to retire.
She and her husband Bruce Hunt have been running what she says is Detroit’s biggest and oldest dance studio for about 40 years, the Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy (DWDA). Many of their friends have long since retired and are waiting for the couple to join them. White-Hunt wants to travel, relax and let the studio go.
But she’s not going anywhere until she knows the studio is in good hands.
Over the years, White-Hunt said more than 15,000 Detroit dancers, from recreational enthusiasts to professionals, have moved through the studio on their way to dancing internationally with the competitive team, dancing professionally or opening up their own studios, or just growing up. (Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield is an alumna.)
“Dancing starts on the inside … the spirit is on the inside,” White-Hunt said “You’ve got to be in touch with what is inside of you in order to make a difference in someone’s life.”
White-Hunt said her process to make that difference is methodical.
She requires DWDA dancers to enroll in the studio’s Dance I.Q. program early in their careers. The program teaches critical dance vocabulary, history and human anatomy, allowing dancers to understand how their body works.
“(The dancers) think I’m crazy,” White-Hunt said, laughing. “Until they go off to college or continue to dance, and they’ll say, ‘Mrs. Hunt, I was the only one in my dance class that knew my vocabulary words.’”
The road to DWDA wasn’t easy. As a child growing up in Detroit, she wanted to be a dancer. She kept dancing through college but wanted financial stability, so she became a teacher.
Forty years ago, White-Hunt was in her early 30s and comfortably in her bag as a dance and physical education teacher in Detroit Public Schools.
White-Hunt brought dancing with her to the schools where she taught. Every time she transferred to another school, she said the former school’s dance programs would end soon after she left. She later transferred to Bates Academy, where she created a “different bond” with her dance students. In 1984, White-Hunt’s students wanted to continue learning dance with her. She found an affordable but small studio space in downtown’s Harmonie Park. The studio was a shared space. She paid $40 in rent for two hours a week.
Dancing alone in that small empty studio one night with her then-boyfriend, now husband, White-Hunt remembers wondering if it was worth the couple trying to grow a studio of their own.
Her husband didn’t have doubts.
“He said, ‘Debbie, we’re here. If we’re here, they are.’” White-Hunt said.
The couple founded Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy later that same year, picking the name after a trip across the bridge to Canada. Still, they didn’t fully commit.
White-Hunt continued to teach during the day for six more years. In the evenings, she and her husband Bruce taught classes at the studio, repeating the cycle day after day. The couple was helping to raise their daughter, Alise, who is now the director of musical theater production at a high school near Williamsburg, Virginia.
“I was burning the candle at both ends,” White-Hunt said. “It got to a point where I was exhausted.”
It took years for her to choose between teaching and dance. At the time, the studio wasn’t making much money, and even after winning a national Milken Educator Award, an honor that came with a $25,000 prize, White-Hunt said she couldn’t justify diving in.
By 1990, she was ready to make DWDA her career.
“I had to meditate, pray, contemplate … I just didn’t want to let that security go,” White-Hunt said.
On a recent trip to the studio, parents waved goodbye to their dancers from the small lobby, dressed in electric blue leotards, hair pulled back in buns and ponytails. Greeted by staff members wearing DWDA jackets, the dancers disappeared to their classes.
The studio’s teal walls are covered with ballet shoes from former dancers and the studio’s awards.
Along another hallway, collages of dancers from previous seasons decorate the walls. White-Hunt said older dancers enjoy coming back to the photos to find their younger selves.
She said she doesn’t remember every performance over the four decades, but the details of a trip to Cape Town, South Africa have stayed with her. The dancers — ranging from elementary to high school — took the stage, and all of a sudden, the music cut out. The sound system stopped working. The choir at the venue began singing so the dancers could perform.
“That was a moment that really touched my heart,” she said.
The bittersweet part of having a dance studio is watching dancers grow and move on, White-Hunt said. Some dancers she taught when they were children now have families of their own.
White-Hunt said ten dance studios have been opened by dancers that trained at DWDA. The Detroit Dance Center, founded by DWDA alumni Dominique Hamlett and Jasmine Woods alongside former DWDA instructor Linda Hendricks. Motor City Dance Factory was founded by DWDA alumna Camille Johnson.
White-Hunt is proud that many of DWDA’s current instructors are past dancers at the studio. She hopes that when she leaves DWDA, they can ensure the studio continues to thrive.
“They know what I stand for,” White-Hunt said. “They know what I tolerate … so they know how to carry on. We want to be able to leave the academy to people who will continue the beautiful and rich legacy in their own way.”