Earlier this year, she finally opened a new 24,000-square-foot performing arts center for the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles — The Rhimes Performing Arts Center. (Yes, as in Shonda Rhimes.)
Allen founded DADA two decades ago to ensure that children of color, in particular, had a chance to take part in the performing arts. The reason that has become her passion is personal.
“In my heart of hearts, I’m always one of those kids,” Allen told CNN in a recent interview. “I grew up in Houston, Texas where in the ’50s and ’60s, everything was segregated, and I couldn’t go to class. I wasn’t allowed to go to the best dance school.”
She studied and struggled and fought her way to success. Her first big break: “Fame,” the 1980 movie and subsequent TV series about high school students at a performing arts school in New York. Allen played Lydia Grant, a hard-charging but loving dance instructor who did not sugarcoat what it took to be successful in the world of dance.
“The role in ‘Fame’ did so many things for me because I did so many things. I was the choreographer, I became a director on ‘Fame,’ I was their mama, I was the psychiatrist, I was their cook, I did everything,” Allen recalled of her experience. “I fell in love with those amazing young people who were actors and dancers and became writers and composers and it was a footprint that we left all over the world.”
Her arts center was made possible with the help of some of her friends and colleagues, who stepped up when Allen wasn’t sure if her dream to expand would work out.
It’s been a long time coming.
In 2017, Hollywood powerhouse producer Rhimes, with whom Allen worked on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” purchased the building, a warehouse in LA’s Koreatown, and donated it to Allen’s program. The Rhimes Performing Arts Center opened this spring.
“Just making more opportunity for young people in the arts, that’s my purpose in life. That’s greater than almost anything else that I do,” Allen said.
And Allen has done a lot. From dancing, to producing, to choreography, to acting and directing, she has forcefully but gracefully pushed past boundaries the industry has laid in her path.
“Our show is very female-driven and the plight of women right now in this country is remarkable. What is happening, what lays ahead of us and what battles we’re gonna have to wage to not go back into some dark age, it’s frightening,” Allen said.
“We can’t,” she said. “The fans — (we have) more fans now than ever.”
Another show she was on — “A Different World,” a groundbreaking series that Allen produced and directed from 1988-1993 — ended prematurely, she says, and she doesn’t mince words when the subject comes up.
“‘A Different World’ should never have gone off the air,” she said. “That’s my opinion about that because talk about relevance, talk about what’s really happening in our country. We addressed some things — the presidential campaign, racism, date rape, AIDS.”
With an impressive career to look back upon, Allen still spends most of her time looking forward.
Later this month, she’ll host a jazz festival with Grammy winner and legendary musician Arturo Sandoval to raise money for her school. She’s excited about teaching salsa, as well as the taco trucks and tequila.
Hell-bent on having fun while doing hard work, she laughs easily and embraces the new with the old. Like twerking.
Oh, yes, she twerks.
“Twerking has had many names; it was the shimmy way back,” she says. “Twerking is funny. It’s a booty move is what it is, and you could totally link it directly to African dance.”
Whether she’s raising money, being a boss on set or moving her feet, Allen keeps her mission to matter front of mind.
“I’d like to be remembered as someone who gave her all,” Allen said. “[Someone] who gave 150% all the way, to her family, to her community, and to the young people in the world.”