Elizabeth Pistole is the founder of The Dancing Divas & Dudes dance team for individuals with special needs. Proving that dancers can disprove disabilities, she has been able to expand the organization, originally based out of Nashville, Tennessee, to include several national locations.
When Elizabeth was growing up, she enjoyed a bright future of opportunities. For 13 years she enjoyed competitive dancing and being part of a team. Each activity she participated in allowed her to gain confidence, self-respect, and taught her how to set goals and achieve them.
Her sister, Natalie, however, did not have the same opportunities.
Natalie faced a challenge — Down Syndrome.
Growing up alongside Natalie, Elizabeth witnessed the obstacles and societal stigmas her sister faced and decided it was time to do something about it.
If her sister and other individuals with special needs were to be given any advantages, it was up to her to create those opportunities.
In an effort to combat and erase society’s stigma towards individuals with special needs, Elizabeth established The Dancing Divas & Dudes organization.
Q&A with Elizabeth Pistole, founder of The Dancing Divas & Dudes
This interview has been gently edited for length and clarity.
GoDaddy: Tell us about your business. What do you do?
Elizabeth Pistole: The Dancing Divas & Dudes was started as Nashville’s first dance team for individuals with special needs.
The organization was created to serve as a microphone to the special needs community.
We now have several chapters in several states.
GoDaddy: Why did you start your business?
EP: As a competitive dancer of 13 years, I had many childhood opportunities to learn teamwork, achieve personal goals, and learn many life skills.
My sister, Natalie, who was born with Down Syndrome, did not have the same opportunities as I did. I was able to grow as a young woman because I had a support system that pushed me to reach my potential.
Society does not offer that support system to Natalie, as many people see her as lacking potential and value.
With Dancing Divas & Dudes, the member’s community involvement and performances play a crucial role in erasing society’s stigmas attached to them and providing a potential-filled future.
GoDaddy: What are some examples of how the program can combat stigma in the community?
EP: Internally, we help each dancer grow confidence by expressing their emotions through creative movement.
This confidence eliminates inadequate feelings and allows the dancers to effectively build team and communication skills.
We are goal-oriented and help individuals with special needs not settle but reach their potential.
Externally, our organization specifically targets the demographic of individuals who do not recognize the value of individuals with special needs.
Monthly activities allow organic integration into the community. Specifically interacting with this demographic plays a key role in eliminating the stigma that individuals with special needs are not able to contribute back to society.
GoDaddy: Is it challenging for the members?
EP: If we were only ever expected to learn 2+2, then we would never understand calculus. Society typically expects individuals with special needs to do mundane jobs or not work at all.
The Dancing Divas & Dudes believe that individuals with special needs should be able to achieve their wildest dreams.
GoDaddy: How did you get started? What were your first steps?
EP: The team started with a passion for my sister and dance.
My first step was to identify that there was a market for a special needs dance team and that the market for special needs programs was not overly saturated.
The job of identifying the market was tackled through research, analyzing needs, and receiving feedback from the general audience we intended to serve.
GoDaddy: How did you select who would qualify to participate?
EP: Through in-depth study and observation, two demographics were most commonly not being recognized — the high functioning individuals with special needs who were not being pushed to reach their potential and the members of society who were fearful to interact with the atypical community.
The challenge then became finding a way to address both demographics simultaneously. This was addressed by creating a goal-oriented program that would interact with all community members on a regular basis.
GoDaddy: What were some of the challenges with developing such an ambitious program?
EP: The approach to creating this program was to create a strategic development plan. This development plan was crucial to ensuring the proper growth and foundation of such a unique program.
This development plan was detail-oriented to break down the policies, budget, program marketing, lesson plans, volunteer rotation, performance schedules and community interaction calendar.
This strategy created a guidebook of clear communication that was needed for the organization to successfully implement this original program.
Setting clear guidelines for everyone to follow prevented miscommunication, which translated to the reliability of the emerging program.
GoDaddy: How long did it take to see success?
EP: The credibility of the new program fast-tracked it to success.
The success of hard work and meticulous set up came to fruition quickly after the program was launched. Participation was 45% higher than expected.
Within one month there had been more than 10 requests for the team to attend events.
This almost immediate reaction from the community was a clear indication of how critical our program was.
GoDaddy: Where and when was your first competition?
EP: After several months of the program existing, the personal goals each dancer had set for themselves were becoming feasible.
The team was then able to travel to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for their first competition where they performed for more than 500 people and lived out their mission of “Dancers Disproving Disabilities.”
Since then, the team has intentionally interacted with over 13,500 members of the society through numerous events and travel.
GoDaddy: What external pressures are you up against?
EP: The most pressing pressure was the idea that individuals with special needs aren’t capable of competing.
Most people thought that the dancers would not be able to travel and perform for large audiences, and they definitely didn’t believe that they could compete well.
Beyond the lack of belief in our dancers, many believed that I was too young to be able to run the program well. While these are added pressures they have in no way stopped me from persevering for my sister and her peers.
GoDaddy: What resources have helped you on your journey?
EP: Social media and online communication have played a huge role in my success. Being able to communicate with thousands in an efficient manner has been instrumental. I also made a relationship with a mentor who could answer questions when needed.
I have gained a lot of momentum for my organization by building relationships with other local businesses and networking to share my mission.
However, my most important resource is my dancers. They inspire me to make my organization the best it can be and help me tailor the program to serve them best.
GoDaddy: What challenges have you overcome so far? Any big milestones or achievements?
EP: With any new business, there are inevitable challenges you will have to face. There have been small challenges such as finding inexpensive practice space to big challenges such as needing to develop new programs.
A challenge we overcame that also served as an achievement was mentoring a student at Auburn University to start a chapter there.
It was challenging to work remotely and make sure that things were done properly but it allowed us to develop a startup guide.
By working through that challenge we created the ability to implement programs in multiple locations.
This growth was a huge milestone because it broadened the reach of our organization.
GoDaddy: How are things today? What are you focusing on?
EP: Through hard work and dedication, our growth rate has been exponential. We started with one dancer and now have 20 dancers in Nashville and 30 in Alabama.
We started with one program and we now have three programs in each chapter: competition team, noncompetition team and a dudes team.
It took one-and-a-half years to have our first performance. Now we perform four regional competitions and four local performances per year. We started with a few team building activities per month.
GoDaddy: Do you see growth in the community as well?
EP: We now have one activity a month and we strive for six of those [per year] to be community-driven. We try to serve at other organizations so that we can show the ability of individuals with special needs to give back to their community.
GoDaddy: Has there been anyone other than yourself to help manage the organization?
EP: Organizationally, we have grown from four board members to 10 over the past year. We have recruited more than 130 volunteers, hired two staff members, and partnered with 10 different nonprofits. We have started two new chapters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Auburn, Alabama.
GoDaddy: Outside of competition and community events, are there any other activities that help grow the organization?
EP: Our first annual gala is this month, which is predicted to increase the budget by 437.5%. With such growth, we are focused on our programming in order to make it sustainable.
GoDaddy: What’s your day-to-day routine like? How do you work?
EP: Being the owner of an organization comes with a different schedule every day. If I am not working in the office I am meeting with local businesses, other organizations, or attending networking events.
GoDaddy: What are some tools you rely on to keep organized?
EP: I use my Office 365 account through GoDaddy to communicate about meetings/events, schedule email reminders for the events, and follow up after each meeting.
In the office, I do a lot of coordinating and planning. My Office 365 account also allows me to communicate and coordinate meetings, team events, other chapters, my board and performances.
GoDaddy Email Marketing campaigns are utilized to share updates and events.
GoDaddy has been instrumental in allowing me to organize and manage well.
GoDaddy: What is the best way for people to find out more about the organization?
EP: I manage and utilize three different websites, all through GoDaddy.
Our primary website offers information about our mission, has links to social media, allows volunteers to sign up, and enables people to give feedback and join our team.
We also have a .info website where I upload team information, volunteer information, and any other information that others may need to access.
Our annual fundraiser also has a website where people can buy tickets and donate. At least once a week, I go into my dashboard to monitor our traffic and promote our online presence.
GoDaddy: Where do you see yourself, and the business, in five years?
EP: We have ambitious goals for the future. Our goals are as follows:
- Have at least 15 competition dancers, 20 non-competition dancers, and 15 dudes in all chapters
- Increase the number of dancers served by 266%
- Separate the non-competition team into skill levels so that teaching and choreography can be tailored properly
GoDaddy: With an increase in dancers, does that allow you to increase performances?
EP: Yes, for performances, our goals include:
- Performing in the 2021 National Dance Competition in Orlando, Florida
- Have the Alabama and Auburn chapters participate in regional competitions
- Be able to participate in more local services projects
GoDaddy: What kind of operational changes will you need to make to manage this growth?
EP: We will increase our national board to 15 members, develop national committees, have at least four chapters by the end of 2019, seven chapters by the end of 2020, and one in every state by 2030.
GoDaddy: What other ambitions do you have that will help the organization get your message out?
EP: I want to provide high school graduates with special needs a scholarship to attend a university with a special needs program and participate in that university’s dance team.
We would also like to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Finally, we would like to share our message internationally and perform in Iceland where they have a high abortion rate of individuals with Down Syndrome.
GoDaddy: Any advice or recommendations for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
EP: My first advice is you are never too young to start chasing your dreams. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.
My second piece of advice is to prepare! Most businesses fail due to a lack of preparation and planning.
Make a detailed business plan that you can follow and rely on through rough areas.
Lastly, it is a lot of work so make sure you have the time and passion to start a new venture.