Debbie Allen

Debbie Allen

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
Debbie Allen on the set of Fame

Debbie Allen on the set of Fame

Debbie Allen directing on the set of Grey's Anatomy

Debbie Allen directing on the set of Grey's Anatomy

Fill 1
Fill 1
December 08, 2022
The Interviews Archive

Foundation Interviews: Debbie Allen

The Hall of Fame inductee discusses the cultural impact of her career as a choreographer, director and producer.

Stephen J. Abramson

When Debbie Allen's mother, Vivian Allen, had had enough of segregated Texas in the 1950s, she moved young Debbie and her sister, Phylicia, from Houston to Mexico. That early example of creative problem-solving ended up serving Allen well in her career as a choreographer, dancer, actress, producer and director.

Allen's first love was dance, but that soon blossomed into a love of theater, which she studied at Howard University. After graduation, she headed to New York City, making her Broadway debut in 1970. By 1980 she'd earned the first of two Tony nominations.

A small but key role as Lydia Grant in the 1980 movie Fame led to Allen being cast in the same part in the television adaptation. In the Fame series, which ran from 1982 to '87, Allen also put her leadership skills to work as choreographer and then director. In the decades since, she established a prolific producing and directing career, helming dozens of episodes of such shows as A Different World, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and Empire.

Allen and her husband, two-time NBA All-Star Norm Nixon, founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in 2000 to serve the youth of Los Angeles. After a decade of support from Wallis Annenberg and Berry Gordy, in 2017 Shonda Rhimes gifted a 24,000 square-foot warehouse to DADA. With that gift, The Rhimes Performing Arts Center came into existence, housing DADA and the Debbie Allen Middle School.

Allen's accomplishments in television — along with her commitment to uplifting the next generation of artists, especially marginalized youth — earned her the Television Academy's Governors Award in 2021. In 2022, she was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Allen has been nominated for twenty-one Emmys. Of her five Emmy wins, four were for choreography: in 1982 and 1983 for Fame, in 1991 for Motown 30: What's Goin' On! and in 2021 for Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square; for the Parton film, she also won an Emmy as an executive producer.

In 2011, Allen was interviewed by Stephen J. Abramson for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at Interviews.

Q: When did you know you wanted to dance professionally?
A: I've known since I was four. This was just who I am, who I have always been. I wanted to replace Shirley Temple. I wanted to be up on that stage when I saw Katherine Dunham dancing in Stormy Weather.

Q: Why did your family move to Mexico City?
A: We were living in Texas at a time when segregation was the way of life. There were so many barriers for us as children and barriers for my mother as an artist. We couldn't go to restaurants. We could go to the big amusement park only one day a year, on June 19th. My mother got tired of that, so she packed us up and we moved to Mexico.

Q: How old were you?
A: I was nine.

Q: And you were able to enroll in the National Ballet of Mexico?
A: We went to two different schools. I went to the Pan-American Workshop and to the Ballet Nacional. It was so enlightening for me and my sister Phylicia to be in a foreign land, where people embrace you in a way that they didn't embrace you in your own hometown.

Q: What about college?
A: I went to Howard University [in Washington, D.C.].

Q: Did you go to work right out of college?
A: I packed a van and drove up to New York. I wanted to dance. I wanted to be in the theater, I wanted to be in a company. I had trained at Howard University as an actress; I majored in theater arts. I also trained as a director and studied lighting and set design.

Q: What was your first television role?
A: Good Times. I played JJ's junkie fiancée. Right after that, I also did some work on Captain Kangaroo. I was excited to do it, but then I got pulled into Hollywood.

Q: You were cast in the sequel to ABC's blockbuster Roots miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations, right?
A: Yes, I was cast as Nan, wife of writer Alex Haley. I was so thrilled to be working with Lloyd Richards, the incredible professor-director from Yale School of Drama. It was the first time I ever went on a set and saw so many Black people on a crew. It was incredible to feel that you really existed in a big way.

Q: And then you were cast in the movie Fame....
A: My character was supposed to be a senior student, and I was supposed to have a big number, but that got cut. I came across onscreen as a young teacher, but I really was the senior student assisting the class.

Q: How did you transition from the film to the NBC series?
A: They said, "Would you come play the dance teacher in the television series? The show's not going to be about your character — it's going to be about the kids." I said, "I would love to — if you let me do the choreography."

They said, "Oh, you can have the choreography," but they paid me almost no money to do it. My agent said, "Why are you going to do that?" I said, "'Cause that's what I really love. If I can do that, I'll do the show."

Q: How did your choreography evolve on the show?
A: Well, I didn't have so much to do with the storylines, but I had everything to do with what happened on the dance floor and our production numbers. [Showrunner] Bill Blinn used to write in the scripts, "DWD," meaning "Debbie will determine." I was giving them ideas all the time.

I was the creative director for every production number, developing and teaching those young diamonds in the rough. I never had a day off — on Saturdays and Sundays they were at my house rehearsing. We only had two days to get the numbers together, and there was a lot of work to be done.

There was no pattern for me to follow. Bill Spencer, our DP, took me into the editing room to show me the archives from the old MGM movies. I would write out timecode, dance, action, lyrics, how much music, and the camera moves. Nobody taught me how to do that. I just knew I had to communicate to everybody, "This is what we're going to do."

The progression from choreography to directing was natural, because I really was in charge of shooting those production numbers. Sometimes the directors would go home because they didn't know how to shoot dance.

Q: Do you recall any particularly challenging episodes?
A: There was one in which we told the story of Othello. Having grown up the way I grew up, I certainly was ready for this little battle. An executive came to me, concerned about what I was going to have Gene Anthony Ray [who played Leroy Johnson] do with Lori Singer [Julie Miller] — he was Black and she was white.

I said, "I didn't pick Othello, the writers did. But if you've read Othello, you know by page two, that she [Desdemona] is already having mad sex with him." I saw his pupils dilate. But this episode won almost everybody an Emmy because the work was so good.

Q: How did you begin directing entire episodes in season two?
A: Bill Blinn has always been my godfather in so many ways. I had been directing the dance numbers for all these directors, the crew was like, "We want Debbie," and then Bill was like, "Let's give Debbie a shot."

So they gave me my first episode, "Lisa's Song." It was incredible, and it was the first time the crew ever wrapped early. We weren't rushing — I just knew what I wanted. I always knew what I wanted as a director. And then it turned into, "You can direct as many as you want." So the choreography did pay off — I was right; my agent was wrong.

Q: As a woman of color in a leadership role, did you experience discrimination on Fame?
A: I found it very tough. I remember my first day directing Fame, wondering what I was going to wear. Did I need to wear some macho-looking clothes? Will they pay attention to me? I ended up wearing my pink overalls and lace socks, my perfume, and they loved me — not because I'm a woman, but because I came prepared as a director.

But often you don't get looked at like that. I went on interviews for so many incredible movies. One time they stopped me and said, "You're the best one for this, but we're not going to hire you because you're a woman."

I would think my talent and ability would fill a quota — I'm Black and I'm a woman — but I think because I come out of theater and the world of social and human injustice, I have no fear. That might be off-putting to people, that I can come in and express myself clearly. Some people go, "Ooh, she's a bit much." Sometimes it's not worked in my favor. But in the long run, I'm still here and I'm doing so many great shows now.

Q: What were your added duties when you became a coexecutive producer?
A: I was able to manage people, keep things moving on time. I was overseeing what was happening in the scripts and production. I was doing all the things I'd always done, but I was now being credited as a producer.

Q: Why did Fame come to an end?
A: In six seasons it ran its course. At the end of the day, it was all more positive than not. We changed the world's image of the arts and what it takes to be successful, and we created performing arts schools around the world. We had an impact.

Q: Then you became a producer and director on A Different World, a spinoff of The Cosby Show. How did that come about?
A: By then I was directing Quantum Leap — and I had just been invited by Gary David Goldberg to become one of the main directors on Family Ties — when I got a call that there were problems on A Different World [the series starring Lisa Bonet and set at Hillman College, a fictional Historically Black College].

I went in and rustled up the writing team and shook up the acting, added people, and got them talking to one another, because that's what I had learned from Gary David Goldberg [creator of Family Ties]. The genius of his show was they would have a read through and open the floor and let the actors say how they felt. I was trying to find that commonality. I freed the writers, freed the actors, got in a lot of trouble — I was always called to what I called the principal's office, but together we made A Different World relevant.

Q: What were your initial goals, or did you discover them as you went along?
A: Well, I looked at every episode and saw a lot of foolishness. I'm all for laughter, and profanity is okay, but with a purpose. We don't have time to do an episode at a Black university where the students are assigned to take care of an egg! We're dealing with serious issues — education, poverty, joblessness, pregnancy, drugs, gangs — and this is a Historically Black College.

Howard University has always been the Harvard to us. We have professors who are so incredibly gifted that Ivy League schools have been trying to extract them, but they are committed to a process. We have a purpose, so I needed to show that, but I also needed to bring in the college life. There was no fraternity life. How do you have a Historically Black College when you don't have fraternities and sororities? Every Friday at Howard University there's a songfest, an homage to African culture. I wanted to bring in relevancy, cultural aspects.

Q: Ultimately, A Different World made quite an impact....
A: A Different World tripled enrollment at Historically Black Colleges. It was like I had found lightning in a bottle twice. Fame created performing arts schools all over the world; A Different World tripled enrollment at HBCUs. That's quite a success story. Forget ratings — that is something that really matters.

Q: You've since directed many other shows — tell us about Grey's Anatomy.
A: Grey's Anatomy is amazing. It was traumatic at first, because even if you're experienced — and I consider myself very experienced — you're still the new kid. But if you really can communicate as a director, that is the most important skill. And I think I brought an energy to the floor that might have been missing. There are always challenges on Grey's Anatomy — big cast, groundbreaking medicine — but I keep everyone in good spirits.

Q: You've also made an impact on the Oscar broadcast — you were brought on in 1982 to choreograph....
A: I did the Oscars ten times. I was brought on by [producer] Gil Cates the first time, and I had a little bit of a swagger, like, "Child, it's about time y'all called me over here!" I had already done an incredible special on Motown — Motown 30: What's Goin' On! — that told a history of dance. I think they wanted something like that for the Oscars because it was the 100th anniversary of film. It had everybody going crazy.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring director or choreographer?
A: Go somewhere and really train. Master one thing and see how it can open the path to so many other things.

I trained as a dancer, and I was a choreographer before I became a director. My sensibility about movement and where the eye goes and moving the camera was developed as a choreographer first, but that translates beautifully into the language of directing.

If you're going to be a director, take some acting classes so you know what you're asking people to do. I cut my teeth directing at Howard University and was privileged to train with Uta Hagen in New York as a young woman. When she told me, "Perfect!" that's when I stopped going to class. I said, "It's time to go to work."

Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As an artist who mastered many different skills, and who gave herself to the world and to young people.

To see the entire interview, go to:

To watch Debbie Allen's induction into the 26th Hall of Fame, click here

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022.

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