Dancer/Director/Producer Debbie Allen has been in our hearts and living rooms for over 40 years both in front and behind the scenes with projects like FAME of the 80’s, directing an all black cast on Broadway for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and writing episodes for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. She is even starting to write for Lifetime’s new series Witches of East End coming to the fall line-up. But these are actually her “side” projects. Her work, her heart for the last 14 years is her dance company Debbie Allen Dance Academy based in Los Angeles’ Baldwin Hills where youth are invited to come and learn to dance regardless of their financial capacity. It is also the dance academy that has the highest percentage of African-American males in the company.
Through he work in the studio with youth, and her work at the Kennedy Center, she wanted to do more. She sees the dwindling arts programs in the schools and supports The Arts conversation as a national platform. Her vision has a partner, husband and former NBA All-star Norm Dixon. The couple collaborated their efforts with a few key sponsors and teamed up Grammy Award-Winning song writer James Ingram to bring together Brother’s of the Knight, Ms. Debbie’s children’s book, an “urbanized” version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, to life in theatrical form.
To stay true to Ms. Debbie’s emphasis on community, she hosted auditions in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Washington D.C.picking 24 principle dancers (12 boys and 12 girls) that represent each city. The principles will travel around the country as a company. The rest of 45 cast members, ages 5 – 20 years old, are chosen from the community in which the show runs. That schedule also puts time restraints. The community cast have only about a week of rehearsals before the show runs in front of a live audience.
I was invited to a tech rehearsal of the show in which I thought as a kids show would be met with “cooing” and “caaahing” – Not so “Honey. You are killing the scene. Even though your back is in the audience we still see you. Act with your back!”, says Ms. Debbie. With that harsh of tone you would think that the child would crumble and cry running off the stage. Instead, quite the opposite happened. She did what she was told.
In the same way that she would correct the young talent, she would praise them. “That was a great run through. Spacing wasn’t bad.” And the talent had no problem raising their hands to ask a question, or to gain advice. She treated them like equals in the process. They were no longer children. They were performers.
I even became part of the process after she berated some of them for not listening. “See sometimes you need to shut up and listen. What are you? You’re little dancers, that’s nothing. That’s why you will never be a director because you don’t listen. You want to be an director, a producer. Listen. You might learn something.” then turns to me and says, “You’re getting the real deal honey.”
Once they took a break, I got to sit down with Ms. Debbie to get first hand on why she does the show and how she continues to thrive at the age when most have gone into retirement.
Bosoton Fab: Why is this particular project so important to you?
Ms. Debbie: It is important because we’re putting out there and giving opportunity to young people to really experience the professional theater and to experience The Arts. And some of them are trained, but they don’t get to do this. And if we can inspire every community to do this. This is what our country needs. We need to be advocates of Arts Education along with the STEM, the sciences. They need to add “a” – STEM “A”. Because there is no innovation without creativity.”
BF: With such a focus on Hip Hop, what do you think that we need more of in The Arts?
Ms. Debbie: What you’re looking at is what we need more of. The boys on this stage, some of them have only been influenced by hip hop. Now they’re Waltzing with a girl, they are doing a Broadway kick line. They have a reference to what is West Side Story. This is what they need. They need the comprehensive dance focus vocabulary.
BF: How do you keep your drive? How do you keep going?
Ms. Debbie: Well you know, it’s looking at that little one, like Alex, Alex was not doing what I wanted him to do and I moved positions. That. Because I need to make him understand, it’s not about being in the front, it’s about staying connected to the journey of [who] that character is.”
BF: Will you ever retire?
Ms. Debbie: You know all of my friends are retired and it’s like…this is not fair, I’m working like a 25 year-old…well it keeps me motivated. My mind is functioning. My body is in good shape…What is retirement really? It’s just shifting gears…I don’t see myself ever stopping. I mean my mind is just too full of ideas. Gwen Burden never retired. Fred Astaire never retired. Ginger Rogers…I mean they kept dancing…We have to do the job until it’s done. That’s it.
This imaginative, funny, and you-wont-believe-they-put-it-together-in-a-week show heads next to Philadelphia this weekend (July 3rd – 6th) and then onto Washington D.C., July 10th – July 13th, and finally in Charlotte, July 17th – 20th. Get your tickets here!
Thank you so much Sabrina and Daniel!