Debbie Allen hit it big in 1980, starring in a Broadway revival of West Side Story. Her performance gained her a Tony nomination and landed her a role as a dance instructor in the movie Fame (1980). The film developed right into a successful television spin-off in 1982, in which Allen co-starred and won three Emmy awards for choreography.
Very Early In Life
Actress, dancer and choreographer Deborrah Kaye Allen was given birth on January 16, 1950, in Houston, Texas, the third child of Pulitzer-winning poet Vivian Ayers, and dentist Arthur Allen. Allen was 3 when she began dancing. By the age of 4 she had become determined to be a professional performer, and her parents enrolled her in dance classes at the age of 5.
Allen’s parents divorced in 1957, leaving mother Vivian as the main caregiver for Debbie and her siblings. Under Vivian’s careful eye, the Allen children were expected to complete writing assignments to encourage their creativity, and each of them had to perform household chores to establish independence.
Debbie’s mother also taught her children to test new things. In 1960, on a whim, Vivian took Debbie and her siblings to live with her in Mexico. “She didn’t know anybody in Mexico,” Debbie later on recalled in the Washington Post. “She didn’t speak Spanish. She was looking for another level of experience…I respect that so much.”
Have trouble with Racism
After almost two years in Mexico, Allen and her family members returned to Texas, where the 12-year-old Debbie auditioned for the Houston Ballet School. Even though her overall performance was adequate for admission, the school refused her entry based on the color of her skin. A year later, a Russian instructor at the school who saw Debbie perform secretly enrolled the aspiring dancer. By the time the admissions department discovered the situation, they were so impressed with her skills that they let Allen stay in the program.
But that would not be the end of Allen’s segregation struggles. At 16, in the course of what she believed was a successful audition for the North Carolina School of the Arts, she was chosen to demonstrate technique for other prospective students. Later, however, her application was rejected because her body was “unsuited” for ballet-a criticism often used to discourage black dancers.
The rejection hit Allen hard, and for the duration of high school, she concentrated primarily on her studies. An honor roll student, Allen entered Howard University, and graduated cum laude from the institution in 1971, with a degree in drama. She headed directly for Broadway after college, and in 1972 she landed several chorus roles, eventually making appearances on television, in commercials and series.
In 1979, Allen had a quick moment in the spotlight when she landed a small part in Alex Haley’s epic television mini-series, Roots: The Next Generation, which talked about race relations in America.
But Allen hit it big in 1980, after she starred in a Broadway revival of West Side Story as Anita. Her performance earned her a Tony Award nomination, and the critical acclaim necessary to land a role as a dance instructor in the movie Fame (1980).
Fame won a number of Academy Awards, and really helped launched a dance fad across the U.S. The wild success of the film evolved into a successful television spin-off in 1982, by which Allen also co-starred. For her role as choreographer on the show, Debbie snagged three Emmy Awards for choreography.
After Fame was canceled, Allen headlined Bob Fosse’s revival of the musical Sweet Charity, which is why she was honored with a Tony. Then in 1988, Allen moved behind the camera to direct The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World-her sister, Phylicia Rashad, had starred as mother Clare Huxtable in the popular franchise of The Cosby Show. Allen boosted the show to the top of the ratings, continuing to produce and direct the sitcom until its finale in 1993.
In 2001, Allen opened up the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, California. The nonprofit school offers a comprehensive dance curriculum for students ranging in age from 4 to 18, regardless of financial status.
Allen has received several honors for her work, which includes an honorary doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts-where she had initially been rejected. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Women in Radio and Television.
Allen is married to former NBA star Norm Nixon. They have two children.
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