The spirit of dance has pulsed through Debbie Allen’s veins almost since the day she was born. Now 63, she has defied a lifetime of challenges, from poverty to racism, to become one of the most respected figures in the world of dance. First leaping to stardom as teacher Lydia Grant in 80s TV hit Fame, Debbie’s career also spans movies, the Broadway stage and choreography for superstars like Michael Jackson, as well as opening her own dance academy. Along with a talented selection of her students, Debbie will bring her passionate spirit to Brisbane Festival in September with the world premiere of her revolutionary dance work, Freeze Frame.
What was your childhood dream? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love dancing. I remember going into the backyard and my audience was the trees and the birds … I was kind of just dancing to the universe. Dancing made me feel happy and gave me a sense of freedom and abandon. I could express myself and it seemed to me like I was giving joy to the world.
How does dance make you feel now? It still makes me feel that way. There’s always a sense of freedom and expression and that boundless energy. The difference is that there’s always pain now! But it’s always been worth it.
Were your parents an influence on your career? My mother was very good at helping me make the right decisions. She always went the distance to find opportunities for me to develop and train and experience the worlds that were of interest to me. There was no one like Mama and there is still no one like her. She continues to be an inspiration, a guide and a litmus test for me.
What has been your greatest challenge? The racial barriers – growing up having to worry about things like segregation and racism. I went to an audition when I was 16 and I was the best one in the room – but I was told I couldn’t be a dancer because I was black.
What made you not give up? Honestly, it was my mum who didn’t let me give up. I wanted to give up right then and there because it was so hurtful. Imagine being a young child who had worked her whole life for this dream and then being told you’ll never make it as a dancer because your body is the wrong type. It was horrible and I did give up, but it was my mum who really got me back in the race. She didn’t let me blame it on the people who I felt were being racist. She told me that I had failed – and that was tough, but it made me realise that I had to get back up. I learnt that I couldn’t blame someone else.
How has that experience influenced your own dance academy? What’s important to me is that the academy is open to the young people who have the spirit of dance in them and love it and want to get it out. And it’s never been about body type. It’s the heartbeat of the dancer that I’m looking for – the interior not the exterior.
What inspired Freeze Frame? This show is not like anything I’ve ever done. A lot of it came from living in Los Angeles, where there are children and young people lost to gun violence every day. It’s really about the despair at the loss of life for no real good reason. That was something that really affected and touched me. There’s a lot of joy, great dancing and music in the show, and I think that’s what the arts are for – to reflect the human condition and touch the audience and make them see, feel and think.
Who inspires you? One of my real iconic heroes has always been Katherine Dunham, who is really the mother of jazz dancing in America and around the world. She was the first woman to have an international dance company that travelled the world and touched on the issues that were going on in America. I got the opportunity to know her, and to spend time sitting at her feet listening, and she will always be one of the most inspirational people to me. And Alvin Ailey, of course, who I also trained with as a young dancer. The greatest lesson I’ve taken away from those mentors is that, when you are an artist and you are speaking through the language of your art, you must speak the truth as you see it. And you must not be afraid to say whatever it is that you’re trying to say. You must be true to yourself and then you will find real purpose.
You’re 63 now – do you still feel like you have a lot more to say? Oh god, yes! I think as long as I’m living I’m going to be creative and have ideas and try to make something happen. The one thing I grew up with, which came from my mum, is to be fearless. Being fearless means you’re not afraid to try things, you’re not afraid to fail and you’re willing to go with that creative spirit. That’s the beauty of it.
What are your words of wisdom? I have a new phrase that I’ve put to my whole staff and all my students: ‘We dream and we do.’ If you can dream it, it’s possible. Dreams are a true manifestation of what is real and they are important. You’ve got to dream and do, but you’ve also got to believe that it can happen and never give up on it.