‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ now Kennedy Center Honors: Debbie Allen on hitting her peak
Debbie Allen is having a moment. Yet again.
In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, the dance mogul was a joyous presence, teaching free dance classes to thousands of people on Instagram. She navigated COVID-19 in real life and on the screen as an actor, director and executive producer on hospital drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” A recently released Netflix documentary, “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” shined light on her tenderhearted yet tough-love approach to working with young dancers.
She taught Cardi B to plié at her Debbie Allen Dance Academy for the rapper’s new Facebook series.
Now the 70-year-old choreographer and writer is one of five people chosen for 2021 Kennedy Center Honors, recognizing her lifetime of achievement in the arts. Announced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, Allen joins folk-music icon Joan Baez, actor Dick Van Dyke, violinist Midori and country music singer-songwriter Garth Brooks.
The 2021 Kennedy Center honorees Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, Dick Van Dyke and Midori will be honored with a scaled-down gala in May.
The achievement recognizes Allen’s prolific career directing and choreographing for stars including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton; winning a Golden Globe for her role as dance teacher Lydia Grant in the 1980s TV series “Fame”; and founding a dance school 20 years ago.
Although Allen has an extensive history with the Kennedy Center as an artist-in-residence and even has been part of the honors selection process, the news came as a complete shock in November.
“It was an emotional moment,” Allen said. “It was just an unexpected moment of gratitude and to be acknowledged like this is great for me and for my family.”
The Times caught up with Allen on Wednesday morning, as she was in the middle of planning another Instagram dance class. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel to receive this honor recognizing your lifetime of work?
Honestly, it makes me feel like I need more time. There’s so much to do. I’m used to doing so many things. The dance academy has become virtual and global. We’re building a new building. “Grey’s Anatomy” has never been more popular and never needed more attention, in the middle of producing the show and COVID.
I had the amazing “Dance Dreams” come out on Netflix, which really was so uplifting for millions of people. It’s just been a banner year with many challenges, but many great achievements. I feel like I need more time to do more. Every moment of success and achievement for me, I certainly share with the people that I work with and that inspire me.
Can you talk about what you hope to accomplish in the future?
I want to do much more theater while we’re waiting for the theaters to open. To really use my ability and my expertise as a filmmaker to create live theater on film and make it accessible for millions of people. I want to expand programs and performing arts opportunities, not just young people. I have an initiative called Journey of Yourself, which is for cancer patients. I have one called Colibri Arts, which is for elders. I have one, Sons of DADA, that’s really focused on young men getting involved in the art of dance, theater arts. The arts have become really essential in the middle of this COVID devastation.
I just feel like I have a real purpose in life, to be as creative as possible, but also to expand the reach and possibility for so many others. I’m starting a middle school, my God. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years. This is a huge undertaking that is very meaningful to me, and it’s going to be great for the young people. And it’s focused on dance and theater arts and education, which is something that’s just everything. So I have a lot on my plate.
Where did you find the energy to create so much at a time that’s been dark for so many people?
We closed down “Grey’s Anatomy” and the Debbie Allen Dance Dance Academy on the same day, March 12 last year. I was sitting with my staff at DADA, and they’re like, “we’re just going to be off now.” I’m like, “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nobody’s going off. We’re going to go virtual.” And I didn’t even know quite what that meant at the time, but I figured it out. I did my first Instagram class, which was thousands of people taking a dance class. That was the beginning of a realization that we have to evolve. This is an evolution that we’re living through right now, as painful as it is.
When I’m at the grocery store, just buying milk and eggs, and a woman who I’ve never met comes up to me to say that my class is really making a difference in her life right now, in the middle of COVID — that’s important to me. It means that what I’m doing is serving, giving. I’m giving something to people that they need and encouraging other people to do the same.
So energy is kind of like my middle name. And I’ve always had this unbounding energy and curiosity to do things, figure things out so I think that’s kind of just who I am.
When you look back on all the things you’ve accomplished, are there any moments that you’re most proud of, or that stand out the most?
When I played Anita in “West Side Story.” It was amazing when I played “Sweet Charity” with Bob Fosse. It was amazing when Steven Spielberg said yes to helping me make this movie “Amistad.” It was amazing to take over the reins of “A Different World,” and help guide and shape the tone and the writing of the show to becoming the juggernaut and the life-changing experience that it became for millions of young people. “Grey’s Anatomy” right now, we save lives every week. To be a part of something that is entertaining — it’s dramatic, it’s compelling, but it also serves a purpose. I feel that I have been fortunate to align myself with projects and the opportunities that have made a difference. And even right now, people bring their children to me for dance, they’re like we loved you from “Fame,” we’re so glad you have an academy.
I was Ms. Versatile in my high school class because I always did many things. And in that world that I live very comfortably, it’s a lot to look back over.
What projects do you have coming up in 2021?
I’m in development on a big, musical sci-fi movie for Netflix. I’m in development on a Christmas movie I wrote that came out of my own life experience. I’m in development on a television series based on my children’s book, “Brothers of the Knight.” I’m in development on another project that is about dancers in New York City trying to find their place in the professional world.
I am actively still trying to find the funding and the support to film “Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness,” which is my dance-driven theater piece about disenfranchisement of Black and Latino youth in America. I have a lot of things that I want to do. I’m still actively trying to figure out, “Grey’s Anatomy” — is this the season finale or not? We don’t know.
I saw that your birthday is coming up on Saturday. Do you have any fun, COVID-era plans?
I haven’t planned a thing. I just want to get to Saturday. Right now, I’m trying to get through my class today. I’m thinking about my combination so I don’t know. I will leave it up to my family to make any kind of a plan. But during COVID, you can’t really go to a restaurant, you can’t have a party. So maybe we’ll just do something virtual and get the family on the phone or something. We haven’t really talked about it.
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