Through the years it seems that Debbie Allen has never stopped, whether she's been performing, producing, directing, teaching or mentoring a whole new generation of performers.
There was "Fame," and the Broadway revivals of West Side Story and Sweet Charity, of course. But one highlight fans, including scholars, often mention is Allen's work on the 1987–93 sitcom "A Different World," which was set at a fictional HBCU (historically black college and university).
Allen was tapped to helm the show as producer-director in the second season; her task was to take what was then the number-two show on television and make it more relevant and real. The ensuing episodes did that and more. Topics included AIDS, date rape, sexism, the L.A. riots, colorism and shopping while Black.
In one episode, called "Mammy Dearest," a student-run art exhibit included a theatrical presentation of singing and African dance, where a pickaninny in blackface emerged from underneath a Mammy figure's skirts. In other words, Allen went there. But the episode ended with a note of triumph as a student embraced her beauty, transforming from Mammy into an African queen while reciting Nikki Giovanni's "Ego Tripping."
Over the years since then, Allen has created plenty of other magical moments, in front of and behind the camera—so many that many people may not even realize they were watching Allen's work, such as her roles acting, directing and serving as executive producer for the popular drama "Grey's Anatomy."
And then, in the middle of all that, she opened a dance school. In Los Angeles' primarily Black Crenshaw neighborhood. Mic drop.
Her Debbie Allen Dance Academy isn't just an ego project with her name on the door. Her students are the first to tell you that Allen is notorious for pushing them past what they thought was their limit and refusing to take "no" for an answer. The stories of students who never thought of themselves as having any sort of career in the arts or dance—but now do—are too numerous to count.
And yet the stories keep coming.
So, too, do the stories of how Allen keeps surprising. Who was one of the first to jump on Instagram Live during the COVID-19 crisis and crash the internet with a free class for the masses? Debbie Allen. Who somehow managed during the pandemic to break ground on a new complex that will include a performing arts center and a middle school? Debbie Allen.
But why should we be surprised at this point? After all, in the words of her most famous character, from "Fame": "You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying—in sweat."
She makes it all look effortless, of course. No sweat, just commitment. And results.
Join Dance Magazine in celebrating Debbie Allen at the December 7 virtual Dance Magazine Awards ceremony. Tickets are now available here.