As a little girl, choreographer Debbie Allen remembers dancing "to the birds and trees" in her backyard. "It was the smallest backyard," she says, "but it seemed like the universe!" Now, at 59, the busy producer and director says she still gets that "sense of freedom and unlimited space" from dance, and it's feeding her longtime dream.
The Debbie Allen Dance Academy, which opened eight years ago in Los Angeles, enrolls almost 400 youth, many of them underprivileged. Call it art meeting real life: Allen famously portrayed a demanding, cane-wielding dance teacher in the 1980 film Fame and later its TV version. Now she's showing up again in a remake of the movie, opening in September. Allen says she "didn't hesitate" to say yes when she was invited this time to play the role of the school principal. "My agent said, 'Debbie, at least read the script,'" she says. "I thought, 'Child, please.' "
“Dance lets you express everything—whatever is going on in your life. It makes you feel powerful.”
Like the characters she has portrayed, Allen admits to some exacting standards in her own studio. "It'll take a lot of work before you get that little crumb of 'that's good,' " she says. But she's convinced her tough love is shoring up her students for real life challenges. "If you can become accomplished on that dance floor," Allen says, "you can succeed anywhere." It was that solid creative center that helped her overcome the many veiled rejections she faced as a young black ballerina on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. "Dance helped me navigate through the racism of the '50s and '60s to get to where I am," she says.
Since Fame, Allen has made successful forays into directing, acting, and singing. This summer she's in London to stage her Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Hers is a schedule that leaves little time for routine. "It's tough being Debbie Allen, you know?" she admits. "She always wakes up with an idea. She doesn't let people sleep at night. She doesn't let herself sleep."
But Allen's verve for dance seems to make up for the lack of rest. "Before people could write, before they could play or make an instrument, they were stamping their feet on the ground," she says. "They were giving homage—to the planet, the sun, their god or gods—in ritual, in movement, in dance. Dance is probably, in many ways, the most original of all the art forms."
It was certainly the original art form in Allen's own life. Raised in Houston, she credits her mother, Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers, with feeding her talent at a young age—and inspiring in her the unrivaled creative confidence that has fueled her varied career.
Passing the torch to her students is now Allen's focus. Dance has taken its toll on her body, she admits—she just can't do what she did 30 years ago. "No. God, no," she says. "But you also can age gracefully in the arts. Transition. Ballerinas then become character dancers. They become the queen. They don't have to do the 32 pirouettes, but they get all the applause when they step out on the floor."