“God save the queen,” said Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer Dylan Santos as I asked him for words of gratitude for Debbie Allen. Simple yet powerful, Santos shared these words with me during our red carpet interview as he mentally prepared to showcase his choreographed piece Odalisques Variations, which would be performed at this year’s Dance Theatre of Harlem Annual Vision Gala honoring the 1990 ESSENCE cover star. Santos’ appreciation for the visual and performing arts was evident as he graced the step-and-repeat with a one-of-a-kind black sequined look with a floor-length velvet durag and pearl accents on the waist of his pants.
“She’s given me the key to success because she made all the dancers believe that you can literally become a star, any type of star,” Santos praised Allen’s impact. “A middle-center star; ‘the camera’s on you’ star.” And he’s right. To say that Debbie Allen is an icon would be an understatement. The Houston-born star has been making waves in the entertainment world and has been the sole illustration of knocking down barriers, being unapologetic about your talent, and never backing down in the face of adversity, challenge, or fear.
Principal Balamouk dancer Ingrid Silva, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, shared her thoughts on Allen’s legacy as a woman of color in the dance world. “I’ve been following Debbie’s footsteps ever since I was a young girl when I came to New York. It was beautiful to see her story coming up,” said the EmpowHERNY founder and Blacks in Ballet co-founder. “Having her honored tonight is not only special for me but for young Black women who dream to become professional dancers.”
Walking down the red carpet at New York City Center was none other than the iconic Debbie Allen. My heart stopped instantly, as I couldn’t believe that I would be speaking with an idol of mine for the second time – except this time, we’d be face to face. Allen approached me sweetly and her pearly smile was accentuated by the true matte red lip she wore with her look. After praising her for the role she’s played in my life as a devoted dancer, I had to ask the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ star what she was gracing us with her presence in.
“This is vintage Revlon. A woman that I love so much willed this coat to me and I was so excited to find a blue dress that was bought by my stylist Rowmel, who does all the styling for me on Grey’s Anatomy,” she said humbly as the blue radiated from her dress, allowing her skin to glow. The Tony nominee called her award receipt as “amazing,” especially because her introduction to dance was through ballet. Beyond Shirley Temple and her pin tight curls, Allen had the aspirations of being a ballerina but she didn’t have much representation to turn to. “There were none that looked like me and the Dance Theatre of Harlem has made it possible when you look at Misty Copeland, who just had a baby, and Lauren Anderson. The Dance Theatre of Harlem at its heart and soul certainly gave all of us something to aspire to be.”
When I asked the fabulous 71-year-old about her thoughts on how Black women have continued to take up space in dance, style, and fashion, she was floored with confusion. Not as though she didn’t know the answer, but as though I should already have it. “I think that question’s a little interesting because we’ve always taken and owned the dance world. They’ve been emulating us since we’ve got off the ship,” the A Different World alumna said strongly. “Everybody wants to know what I’m wearing. That’s the first question you asked me. Black people by nature out of the continental mother Africa have always been diva, grand, colorful, emulating, and always giving homage to the ancestors and to God. Here we are.”
Sunny Hostin, who I had the pleasure of sitting next to at the Alvin Ailey gala last year, walked the gala’s red carpet in a custom tuxedo stitched by none other than acclaimed designer Sergio Hudson. The all-white pants suit made a statement that The View host is a boss babe that means business, but her personality is just as I remembered and as sweet and luminous as her name. Hostin recalled a time when she dressed up as Allen from her Fame days for a Halloween taping of The View and recited the famous lines without a hiccup – “You want fame? Well, fame costs. Right here is where you start paying in sweat!”
Hostin deemed some of Allen’s looks over the years as iconic, including her leggings and unitard combinations from the 1982-born show. She also thought back to her “incredible style moment” at the Oscars over the years and even gave a nod to her variety of hairstyles. “Her hair has given so many people like me and others to wear our hair naturally. She’s really been an example of what it means to be fashion-forward in both hair and dress,” Hostin said. “I think many times as women of color, we can’t just be. We have to represent, and thank you for representing us so well.”
Chef, television personality, and former model Carla Hall also joined in on the festivities to honor Allen as she received the Arthur Mitchell Vision Award. In fun Bantu knots, white Chanel boots, and a white bodysuit with a black and white skirt, Carla’s classy and pleasant personality was worn all over her body from head to toe. “I honestly pulled it out of my closet. I think up until today, I’d been wearing it incorrectly,” she said jokingly but serious as she “outed” herself, she claimed. “I needed an event to know how to wear my skirt.”
As a dancer herself, the former The Chew co-host found her time being spent on Instagram binge-watching dance performances as a means of peace during quarantine, especially Debbie Allen Dance Academy. A proud Howard University alumna, Hall gave her fellow Bison her well-deserved flowers by calling her a “force” and “a beacon of light” in the dance industry. When it came time to discuss Allen’s style and beauty moments, similar to Hostin, Hall thought back to Fame, but this time for her shorter hairstyles. “I like her best when she feels so in her moment while dancing impromptu with her hair pulled up,” she noted about Allen’s confidence when she’s in her natural element.
“Whether you’re a professional dancer or not, she just takes care of the human being part of the discipline of dance so you can go on to be whoever you are going to be in life,” Hall stated passionately. “And I don’t even know her personally. I just feel that from her.”
After an evening of being virtually honored by the likes of musician Stevie Wonder, singer/actress Dolly Parton, and actor Jesse Williams, Allen was officially presented with the Arthur Mitchell Vision Award, which was named after the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet.
“Thank you for showing me what’s possible. Debbie has not limited herself,” Anna Glass, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Executive Director, shared with ESSENCE about the coveted director, choreographer, actress, and dancer. Also heavily impacted by Allen’s legacy, Glass had the opportunity to show last night’s honoree a photo of her younger self when she was studying at the Ailey School waiting for Allen after her Sweet Charity Broadway performance. “She has pushed in all sorts of different ways. Debbie’s fearless. That’s the one word – fearless.”
“When people see these gorgeous dancers and these beautiful ballets, you can’t help but be inspired by what you’re experiencing. Fashion is all about inspiration and it’s all about dreaming,” Glass said as she noted how dance has continued to inspire fashion and beauty standards today. “When you’re a little girl, you want to dress up and that’s the same as being a ballerina. You dress up and dream of wearing a tutu. It’s about glamour, feeling beautiful, and don’t we all want to feel beautiful?”