Center Stage
Kwaku Alston

“Some days I wake up and think, That damn Debbie Allen,” she says with a laugh, speaking of herself in the third person. “She always has an idea and I wish she’d just leave me alone sometimes!” Even as she jokes about the prospect of slowing her pace, she knows that’s not who she is, or ever was.

It’s just before one o’clock on a Saturday, one of the busiest days at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles. On this particular day, however, there is more activity than usual. Just as a meeting with parents of new students is adjourning out back, a group of preteen girls of every height and hue gathers inside to audition for The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (BET will air last year’s production in December). This is the fourth year that the show, Allen’s twist on the classic ballet, will play at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Royce Hall, and news of the open call has spread like wildfire. But before any dancing commences, Ms. Allen—as her students and faculty call her—wants to see everybody in the room. Dressed down in a white button-up top, hot pink cargo pants and matching Nikes, she directs the girls to walk across the floor, row by row.

Step, step, walk…step, step, walk…step, step, walk…

Watching her in action is like going back in time to her days as Lydia Grant, from the 1980’s movie and TV series Fame. But really, that was more than three decades ago. Allen, now 64, has accomplished so much since then, and it’s likely her young charges know her for very different reasons. Perhaps they’ve seen her sit at the judges’ table on So You Think You Can Dance. They’ve probably read her children’s books, too, and attended her stage productions. Maybe they’ve even felt the buzz surrounding the prime-time shows she currently stars in and directs. All in all, it speaks to the legacy she has been building for years.

Debbie Allen is a dancer, singer, actor and choreographer, just as she’s a writer, producer, mentor and community leader. She’s also a wife and the mother of Vivian Nixon, 30, and Norm “Thump” Nixon, Jr., 27. She wears many hats, but she sticks to a simple method for managing it all. “When I’m here, auditioning children, I’m not thinking about directing Scandal or Grey’s Anatomy,” she explains. “But if I’m working on How to Get Away With Murder, I don’t want to hear about anything else, because I’m totally focused on getting that story on film. I do one thing at a time.”

Big Dreams

Dance is her core. It’s the well from which she derives her inspiration. But to understand the magic of Debbie Allen, to truly appreciate the force that she is and that she brings, it’s necessary to take a look back at the people and places that shaped her. The third child and second daughter of Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers and the late Dr. Arthur Andrew Allen, she was raised as a “child of the universe.” She was once asked what religion she practiced. Her response: “I am a free mind.” That independent spirit was her mother’s doing.

Growing up in Houston during the sixties could have been a limiting existence, but while her father, a prominent dentist, was teaching his children about the power of community, her mom was exposing them to the world beyond their block through art. “We went to museums and concerts, but because of segregation, we couldn’t go downtown to the movies, so we’d see them later, on television,” says Allen, who was mesmerized by musicals. That’s where the dreaming began. “Listening to Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge sing and watching the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire dance had a big impact on me. Then when I saw Shirley Temple, I said, “I can outdance her. I know I can!””

“Deborrah is a little lady, but she is a large spirit. In junior high school, she joined the string ensemble and, if you can imagine, she chose the bass violin. She had to sit on a stool so her hands could reach the fingerboard,” Phylicia Rashad says of her younger sister and frequent collaborator, whom she still calls by her given name. (Allen’s first manager suggested she shorten her name to Debbie—she agreed—and get plastic surgery on her lips, which she vehemently refused.)

While many of Allen’s memories are peppered with laughter, like meeting her husband of 30 years, former NBA player Norm Nixon, while filming The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (“Ooh child, that movie was a gift and a disaster!”), there’s one experience that brings her to tears. At 17, after years of training at the Houston School of Ballet, she auditioned for the North Carolina School of the Arts. “I was told that my body was not right for ballet,” says Allen, who, ironically, was asked to demonstrate ballet combinations during the audition. Sharing the news with her parents was difficult. “At first my father didn’t believe me, but when I tried to explain to my mother what happened, she said, “You failed.” ” The lesson was hard, but she got it, eventually. “Mama was trying to explain that I couldn’t lay blame on somebody whose idea it was that I was not right. It was up to me to do something to get where I wanted to go.”

“That rejection hurt her so much that she stopped dancing for a year. She was crushed,” recalls Rashad, who graduated from Howard University before making her way to New York, with Allen close behind. “I used to copy everything Phylicia did,” Allen says, laughing. It was at Howard that she found her footing. “Girl, I was at a party and in the middle of whatever funky dance I was doing, I did a triple turn and a layout—bam!” Mike Malone, the late legendary choreographer and director, was impressed. “He said, “You know, you can really dance,” and I was like, “Oh, hmmm, well…” That was the turning point.”

To read the complete article “Center Stage,” pick up the December 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.