Outside of the women in my family and my former dance teachers (shout out to the McKetney sisters of Jamaica, Queens, and Joyce Mosso of Washington, D.C.), Debbie Allen was my first role model. It all started with Fame, of course, but I was also amazed to watch as her career blossomed over the years. From the outside looking in, she always seemed to transition between mediums with such ease — co-starring on The Cosby Show with her sister, Phylicia Rashad; producing, directing and starring on A Different World; recording an album; choreographing the Oscars; producing films; writing children’s books; directing on Broadway; starring in and directing episodes of Grey’s Anatomy; sitting on the judges’ panel of So You Think You Can Dance; and on and on… and on. Allen continues to do it all and she’s also committed herself to instilling that same level of passion and drive into the creative artists who are following in her footsteps.
Two Thursdays ago, she unveiled her latest gem: the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) Ensemble. As I sat in the audience at the Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts watching her young dancers jeté across the stage, all I could think was, This is how you pay it forward! The show — which included the choreography of Terry Beeman, Karen McDonald, Eartha Robinson and, yes, “Ms. Debbie Allen,” as her youngest charges call her — featured 22 ensemble dancers and two guest artists who performed four exquisite suites titled The Blessing, Leaving Love, Mosaic and Church. Every toe was pointed with precision and every leg was extended, beautifully. The energy was electric and as Allen noted in the program, “DADA Ensemble is the result of a decade of training and performance that have reached a bursting point.”
In 2001, Allen and her husband, Norm Nixon, founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, which was then based in Culver City and later, relocated to its current home in Baldwin Hills. Since opening its doors, a generation of artists has been groomed and trained at DADA, the place to be in Los Angeles for artistic education in ballet, modern jazz, tap, voice, acting, hip-hop and African dance. Along with offering her students a transformative learning experience, she makes it a point to acknowledge their parents, too. “We love them and we know what to do with them,” she has said of her multi-ethnic student body. “Just bring them to us!”
Debbie Allen has always been the person who comes to mind when I need a creative boost. A few years back, I jumped at the opportunity to interview her — over breakfast, no less! — but when we sat down, I found that I could barely gather myself. When I admitted that I was having a “moment,” she laughed and said, “Oh, honey, please — it’s okay!” So I took a deep breath, hit “record” and led an insightful conversation about art and life. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. What I learned that day was that whether you’re a dancer or writer, doctor or attorney, aspiring or accomplished, we all need a “Debbie Allen” in our lives. It’s not about hero worship, though. It’s about having a source of inspiration when you need that extra push to keep going. Chasing dreams is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a journey that can be traveled alone.
When she addressed the audience at the close of the show, Allen was both happy and humbled, with good reason. She’s doing great work and the fruits of her labor are ripening right before her eyes. “I am just grateful that God has given me a purpose in my life beyond anything I ever knew was going to be,” she said. “It started in a really interesting, small way, but it’s become much bigger and better and it’s reaching even further. This is really just the beginning… we’re going to keep working.”
Regina R. Robertson is West Coast Editor of ESSENCE. Follow her on Twitter @reginarobertson.