Face to Face: Debbie Allen

Though Fame first hit the big screen in 1980, its compelling portrayal of a performing arts high school has stood the test of time—so much that it inspired a memorable television series and now, the highly anticipated film adaptation hitting theaters this month. At the center of the franchise’s success stands Debbie Allen (DT September 2001 cover), whose character Lydia Grant became instantly identifiable by her sassy quote: “You got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start payin’ . . . in sweat.”

Like her alter ego, Allen believes in paying dues—and she’s far from all talk. This prolific real-life dance teacher has earned her stripes in just about every dance form imaginable, from a Tony Award–nominated role in Broadway’s West Side Story as Anita to creating various commissioned pieces for Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center (most recently its cultural display “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World”). She appears regularly as a judge on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” and helms her Los Angeles–based dance studio. Amidst it all, Allen, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, took time from her busy schedule to make a cameo in the upcoming Fame remake.

Dance Teacher: Fame has inspired so many performers. What has it meant to you personally and professionally?
Debbie Allen: I believe that the series truly endeared the performing arts to the world. [Since then], performing arts schools have popped up all over the world. It was on Fame that I became a director and producer; I learned so many things that have informed my career. It was one of the greatest times creatively and one of the most loving times with that band of gypsy kids. They were little Tasmanian devils, but so talented—I loved every one of them. We just had a reunion last fall, and we were remembering Gene Anthony Ray [the dancer who played Leroy died in 2003]. I will always pay homage to Fame.

DT: After 20-some years, do you still identify with Lydia Grant?
DA: Debbie Allen is so much more than Lydia Grant. [laughs] Fame was a television series, but I’m doing it for real. I’m in the world of tough love—that’s the dance world. Even when I teach 6-year-olds, I demand their attention, respect and discipline. And they can do it, if you don’t treat them like little babies. In April, I did a production called Dreams in Baton Rouge that was commissioned by the Kennedy Center. In the show, kids dream about the future and the youngest one says he wants to be a duck. It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, but I was tough on them and they were so amazing! It makes you feel like you have a real purpose in life beyond fame, glory or money when you can put the light in a child’s eyes.

DT: What advice do you have for dance teachers hoping to follow in your footsteps?
DA: Try to find a way to keep it vibrant; stay engaged. The last thing you need is for a teacher to just be tough and not inspirational. You have to be both. You have to kick their ass sometimes to mold students into that wonderful human being that will go out there and take over the world. Put it in their heads that they not only can do it, but have to do it.

DT: When we featured you on the cover in 2001, you had just opened Debbie Allen Dance Academy. In that interview, you mentioned that your aim was to provide training in a variety of styles. Is this still reflected today?
DA: The dancers who stand out on “SYTYCD” are the ones who can do it all and do it well, but there are just a few. My hope is that my school can inspire other studios to expand their vocabulary/offerings. At DADA, we teach flamenco, hip hop, Horton technique, modern, Cirque du Soleil technique and even voice lessons. I don’t see enough schools out there giving these same opportunities. We want our dancers to be able to communicate the language of dance anywhere they go.

DT: What has been one of the biggest challenges your studio has faced?
DA: We lost our Culver City building earlier this year and had to find a new home. In June, we moved into a new studio in Baldwin Hills that was made especially for us. It opened up all kinds of possibilities because we’re still standing strong in the midst of this financial crisis.

DT: Looking back, which of your own dance teachers made the biggest impact on you?
DA: Madame Tatiana Semenova, who was the Houston Ballet Academy’s artistic director. It took me many years to get into the school because it was segregated; we tried to pretend I was Mexican and they still wouldn’t take me. Madame held a citywide audition and found me at 14 years old. That training made all the difference in my technique and confidence. You can have the heart of a dancer, but if you don’t get the training, you just can’t be.

DT: Do your plans for the future include continuing to teach?
DA: I don’t know if I can ever not teach. It’s part of my footprint, part of my DNA, and you can’t change your DNA. DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor based in Los Angeles.

Photo by Saeed Adyani, courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Lakeshore Entertainment

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