Debbie Allen found god, and her name is Shonda Rhimes. How the two built this L.A. arts center

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A woman wearing white reaches out her arms to her side in an expression of joy.
Director, choreographer and actor Debbie Allen has room to stretch in the new home of her dance academy.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)

When Debbie Allen isn’t in front of the camera acting — or behind it directing — she can be found buzzing around her 25,000-square-foot fine arts “palace” in Mid-City.

From the outside, the building tries hard to hide in plain sight. In daylight its second-story addition appears to have no windows. But inside, the “Grey’s Anatomy” director and actress is putting the finishing touches on the new home of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, inside the Rhimes Performing Arts Center.


The moniker pays homage to Allen’s longtime friend and colleague: TV powerhouse and “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes, who gifted the building.

The venue features five dance studios, a 200-seat performance area and classrooms for the Debbie Allen Middle School of the Performing Arts. The facility also has a studio theater and art gallery, which Allen hopes to make a gathering space for performers and creatives.

“I know what got me to where I am … all of that training, the bel canto singing, the acting: I’m trying to give it to these kids,” Allen said.

Allen said Rhimes was hesitant to have the facility named after her, but Allen insisted on it. In a statement, Rhimes said she’s proud to have the Rhimes family name on a building “that I know will do so much for the arts and the community at large for years to come.”

Children rehearse at a ballet barre while an instructor speaks to them.
Abby Lee Miller, right, dance instructor and founder of the Abby Lee Dance Company, teaches a legs and feet technique class in the new Rhimes Performing Arts Center.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)


Posters are displayed on a brick wall
Posters decorate the lobby of the new center, formerly a warehouse that was expanded with a second-floor addition.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)

“I am beyond proud to support the Debbie Allen Dance Academy’s new home — the Rhimes Performing Arts Center,” the statement read. “At DADA, the program is a haven of discipline and acceptance where — no matter their size, ability or economic background — young girls and boys grow into hard working, conscientious, determined and confident young women and men. DADA is more than just a place where children learn to dance. DADA is a movement.”

The performance center had its grand opening in March, followed by a ceremony April 10 attended by “Grey’s Anatomy” co-stars Ellen Pompeo and Kevin McKidd, actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and musicians Billy Porter and Jennifer Hudson. It officially opened dance academy classes last weekend.

Dancers 4 and older can begin enrolling in theater and in dance classes, including ballet, Dunham, flamenco, hip hop, jazz, African, Latin fusion, modern and tap. Students also can enroll in master classes taught by the likes of former ballerina Marguerite Derricks, and former “Dance Moms” reality TV dance teacher Abby Lee Miller. Some of the dance classes, such as the salsa class, are being taught by Allen herself.

Red aerial silks are seen in an empty aerial studio.
The Jada and Will Aerial Studio inside the Rhimes Performing Arts Center.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)


Long before appearing in, executive producing and eventually directing one of the highest-rated shows in prime-time TV, Allen was dancing. She won two Emmy Awards for outstanding choreography for her career-defining performance as dance teacher Lydia in the 1980s musical drama series “Fame.”

Allen said the center, which cost more than $10 million to complete, will have classrooms for up to 15 students in the performing arts middle school (separate from the dance academy) starting in September.

The performing arts center was designed by the global architecture and design firm Gensler. Inside, its bright white walls are decorated with paintings and photographs from Allen’s personal collection (many by friend Rick Carter). The second floor features modern, opaque glass exterior walls that glow when illuminated at night, revealing the silhouette of dancers rehearsing.

The Rhimes Performing Arts Center sits just just three miles from the Arena (formerly Staples Center) and takes up almost an entire city block. Allen said its location is crucial.

DADA had long outgrown its previous home — a revamped Marie Callender’s restaurant in Culver City — but it was affordable, Allen said, and served its purpose as a community beacon in an underserved neighborhood that was predominantly Black and Latino. The new dance facility will do just the same, but on a larger scale.


A young dancer holds élevé
A young dancer holds élevé, when a dancer rises to the balls of their feet, in Abby Lee Miller’s class.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)

Art hangs on white walls in a walkway.
A lobby-style art gallery, which Allen hopes to make a gathering space for performers and creatives.
(Philip Cheung / For The Times)

The 2020 Netflix documentary “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” followed Allen as she tried to choreograph 200 dancers in the retrofitted restaurant-turned-dance studio. Securing funding for a larger venue was tough. The cost of a new facility was steep, and Allen couldn’t find someone who would co-sign with her on a building.

“I was just calling on the gods to come in and help me make this what it is,” she said.

Until one morning, when god came in the form of a phone call from Rhimes, asking to meet at the corner of West Washington Boulevard and South Manhattan Place. Rhimes was standing in front of an old brick building that would soon become DADA’s new home.

“It’s never going to get old, what we’re doing. It’s never going to get old,” Allen said. “I feel like what we have here — even though we’re 22 years old — this is a new beginning.”