She’s on television weekly as Dr. Catherine Fox. But many fans remember Debbie Allen’s days as dance teacher Lydia Grant in the epoch-making “Fame,” on both the big screen in 1980 and on the subsequent TV series for which she won a Best Actress Golden Globe in 1982.
“I’m still being recognized so much for ‘Fame,’” said Allen, 68, who will give a keynote address at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana on Oct. 24. “I once went to South Africa and discovered they were doing their own ‘Fame.’ It’s very nice to be celebrated like that and be respected like that after all these years.”
As the old saying goes: Life imitates art.
“And art imitates life,” said Allen, herself a longtime dance instructor even before she founded her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2001. “When I did ‘Fame,’ I taught dance, and a lot of that character was already truthful to my experiences. Actually, I feel art is more a reflection of life than an imitation of it. It can inspire. Hopefully, it can change one’s life for the better.”
The event at OCSA is not open to the public, but Allen plans to address more than 250 arts leaders and arts educators, as well as 120 dance students as part of the Arts Schools Network Conference.
“My address is about the value of arts education,” she said, “and the need to explore how we can take the arts and go beyond what people think the arts represent. Arts education should be at the core of every public school education. It is one of the most important disciplines, along with math, English and science. Arts education is so fundamental in other parts of the world — why not here?
“The arts are about the spirit of creativity. Artists think a lot. They consider the world. They bring information and reflection to the truth of our lives.”
Allen is a multihyphenate artist. In addition to her responsibilities as an actress, director and executive producer, she will begin November by putting on her own gala in Beverly Hills, where her students will dance. She will end the month by curating a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Allen credits her “Renaissance” mother — artist-poet-playwright-classical pianist Vivian Ayers Allen, who is 95 “and still kicking!” — for her nonstop energy and continued passion. She is also close to her older sister, Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”), whom she calls daily.
“Thanks to my mother being my biggest influence, I’m still going at it. I don’t think I’m going to die anytime soon,” she said with a laugh. “There’s just so much ahead of me. And to do what I do and affect people’s lives — that gives me joy and pride to keep on working. I have to keep going to make things happen.”
The Debbie Allen Dance Academy, which has been in Baldwin Hills since 2012, has well over 200 students, and recently added a class to uplift young, battered women through dance. Allen, who made her stage debut as part of the corps de ballet in Verdi’s “Aida” in her hometown of Houston, also says she would love to direct opera.
Despite her accomplishments, it’s the her family she cherishes the most. And they’re about to welcome a new member.
“I’m blessed,” she said. “I’m most proud of my children, my beautiful family, who are all healthy and finding their way in the world … Finally, the gift I always wanted: to be a grandmother.”
Michael Rydzynski is a contributor to Times Community News.