Folks looking for a good cause and a night of show-stopping entertainment need look no further than CityDance’s annual DREAMscape Gala. This Saturday, May 6, donors can expect performances from the world’s hottest dancers hosted by one of dance’s most groundbreaking achievers, Emmy Award-winning choreographer Debbie Allen.
Proceeds from the gala support CityDance’s DREAM program. CityDance DREAM is a nationally recognized after-school program, providing dance classes, performance opportunities, mentoring, tutoring and college counseling to students from under-served communities across Washington, DC.
Debbie Allen became an instant icon in 1982 with the TV show Fame, which she starred in and choreographed. Since then, she has broken race and gender barriers as a choreographer, director, producer and actress. To name but a few of her accomplishments, Allen has choreographed The Academy Awards Show ten times, directed episodes of Scandal, Empire and How to Get Away with Murder, and is now Executive Producer of Grey’s Anatomy. She runs her own non-profit dance school for youth, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, and is a vocal proponent of arts education.
I spoke to Debbie Allen about her career, her excitement for the CityDance DREAMscape Gala, and why arts education is more vital now than ever.
Nicole: What does CityDance mean to you and why are you taking the time to come to DC to head the DREAMscape Gala on May 6?
Debbie: What CityDance is doing is beyond valuable. You can’t even put a price tag on it. Right now, when the arts are under siege for funding and there is a lack of understanding of the value of arts, organizations like CityDance offer a chance to repair that broken bridge.
An education without the arts in it is not a full education. America will not stay number one in innovation without creativity. All these bureaucrats who think they are saving dollars by cutting arts education? They aren’t promoting the best in America. If we don’t get that balance of arts and STEM, we are going to lose our innovative edge. Where is that going to leave America?
Give me an example of how studying the arts lead to innovation?
I’m going to point to one person: Steve Jobs. He’s one of the most incredible geniuses of our time. His biography talks about how he ran out of math class to attend dance classes and study calligraphy. That kind of artistic development expanded his knowledge and sense of expression. That is why we have so many fonts on our computers now. Because that part of his brain was activated. When I read that, I thought, this needs to be on the front page of every paper in the country to remind people that a real STEM education needs to include the arts!
You experienced racism as a young girl when you applied to the Houston Ballet Foundation. How has that shaped your dedication to working for young female artists and artists of color?
As a young girl, all I wanted to do was be a ballerina and the school denied me entry based on my skin color. But I kept trying, and was finally admitted as the first black student and first black company member at the Houston Ballet Foundation. It was a challenge to be the only one, but it gave me an early understanding that the arts can help young people rise above so many challenges.
On some level, I’m always going to be that kid who wasn’t allowed to go to dance class, but then had a door open for them. That door opening was all I needed and here I am today. I will always do what I can to give back and open doors for other children.
How did you get the job choreographing Fame?
They approached me to play Lydia Grant on the TV series Fame. I agreed but told them that what I really wanted was to do the choreography. “Oh you can have that,” they replied. They had no conception that dance was the Deus ex Machina that gives spectacle and production value to a show. They paid me ten times more to act than to choreograph!
My dancers and I came to that show like a band of gypsies. We were used to dancing for a hot meal and a per diem, no insurance or anything like that! I brought this band of gypsies to Hollywood and we changed the game. It was amazing for all involved and three Emmy Awards later here I am!
You are now directing shows like Scandal and Empire and executive producing Grey’s Anatomy. How has being a female director/choreographer changed since you got in the game?
Drastically! When I started directing and choreographing for TV there were no women in sight. Even when I choreographed the Oscars ten times, I was often the only woman in the room!
Now I work with Shonda Rhimes, who is a black woman and one of the most powerful movers in television. I have more women directing on Grey’s Anatomy than any other show in the industry. I’m always looking for talented women, but I never ignore the men, because you’ve got to balance the scales!
You were raised by a strong mother who produced two groundbreaking daughters (Allen’s mother is a Pultizer Prize-nominated artist and playwright and her sister is the actress Phylicia Rashad). What is the secret to raising strong women?
You lead by example but you have to let them find their own way. I think it is important to let them see you work. When my daughter was first born, she would sleep in a little Jesus basket under the piano while we were filming Fame. They need to know that when mommy is gone, she isn’t out having a good time, but she is having a good time working.
Speaking of parenting, I showed my daughter a clip of you doing Bob Fosse choreography with Gwen Vernon. She told me that “no one dances like THAT anymore, mom!” How does dance evolve?
Change is the nature of the world! The language of dance evolves along with music and culture. Ballet companies don’t just cycle through the old classics of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella anymore. As you will see at the DREAMscape Gala, dance companies are now telling contemporary stories that incorporate the diversity of America.
That’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to about the gala. You never know which performance will inspire and surprise you! I’m very excited to be there.
Proceeds from the gala support CItyDance’s DREAM program. CityDance DREAM is a nationally recognized after-school program, providing dance classes, performance opportunities, mentoring, tutoring and college counseling to students from under-served communities across Washington, DC.
• Ballroom stars Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina
• Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki (The Washington Ballet)
• Bruce Wood Dance Project
• Cervilio Miguel Amador and Chisako Oga (Cincinnati Ballet)
• Guest artists from Complexions Contemporary Ballet
• Step Afrika!
• Tap star Cartier Williams
• Special appearances by CityDance students