Debbie Allen’s technique? It’s all about tough love

Debbie Allen, the legendary choreographer, dancer, director and producer, leads students through some dance moves as they audition for a master class seeking students for the Debbie Allen Dance Academy Summer Intensive camp in Atlanta at Maynard Jackson High School. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
Debbie Allen, the legendary choreographer, dancer, director and producer, leads students through some dance moves as they audition for a master class seeking students for the Debbie Allen Dance Academy Summer Intensive camp in Atlanta at Maynard Jackson High School. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Was Lydia Grant, the dance teacher Debbie Allen played in both the film and television versions of “Fame,” really a fictional character? Wielding a cane — in homage to one of Aloptitonalen’s own ballet teachers, Madame Tatiana Semenova — Grant tells her students: “You’ve got big dreams; you want fame. Well, fame costs, and right here is where you start paying; in sweat.”

To my great delight, Allen shares that no-nonsense perspective — it’s not about coddling. The new film “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is certainly about the vibrant and charming reimagining of the holiday classic that the Debbie Allen Dance Academy presents each season. But it is just as much about Allen herself.

It shows that this dancer, actor, choreographer and director is also something else: an educator, and a formidable one at that.

“Dance Dreams,” on Netflix beginning Friday, documents the rehearsal process leading up to performances of “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” a child-dominated production that emphasizes acting as much as dancing, and showcases jazz, modern dance, hip-hop and ballet. (Like most “Nutcrackers,” it is on hiatus this season because of the coronavirus.)

In doing so, the movie provides an unvarnished look at Allen’s tough-love approach to running a dance academy. “I know some of you still need to learn how to point your toes and your feet,” she says at the start of the film. “But none of that will come if you don’t learn how to be quiet and listen!”

At her academy, in Los Angeles, technique is offered in many genres, but the training is more expansive than just learning steps. Allen’s students study dance history; they must know about choreographers Katherine Dunham and Bob Fosse; but they also must know about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat because, to her, understanding dance is about understanding all the arts. “They have to know everything about ‘West Side Story,’ the quintessential American musical,” Allen, 70, said in a phone interview. “Who is Irene Sharaff, the great costume designer? These are things that will get lost, and I want my young people to speak the language of dance anywhere on the planet. And they do.”

At the first audition in the documentary, she tells some young girls that they need more training before they will get a part in the show. A moment later, she consoles a sobbing girl while simultaneously studying a sheet of paper. “You just need more class,” she says. “It hurts my feelings, too.” (Love.)

To a group of teenage girls on the floor, their legs parted in a straddle, Allen stresses that they won’t make it to the next level by “going around to the mall and being cute in heels.” She tells them: “Take those high heels off and get down on the floor and stretch.” (Tough.)

Allen doesn’t need a script to be a quote machine. She recently spoke about her own journey as a student, her twist on “The Nutcracker,” and why dance — and all of the arts — should be considered essential.

What follows are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: The director of “Dance Dreams,” Oliver Bokelberg, has a daughter at your school. How did the project begin?

A: He wanted to capture a few pictures and before you knew it he was there all the time. And then one day he said, “Debbie, can I put on this microphone?” I said, “Oliver, get out of my way, you can’t interrupt me!” And then I honestly would forget that he was in there. He was shooting all the time.

It’s real cinéma-vérité, where you’re a fly on the wall. I was true to what the moment needed. And when the students needed to be blasted for coming in late or not working hard enough, it’s what I do, it’s how I train them every day.

Q: Why was it important for you to feature so many children in your “Nutcracker”?

A: In the middle of a traditional “Nutcracker,” my son screamed out loud, “Mom, when is the rat coming?” So I knew they wanted to see a rat. I decided to let the rats take over the story. I created these characters that kind of take you through the journey.

But more important, I focus on the young performers because I wanted to create something where they would see themselves on that stage.

Q: You’re busy with other projects, including your work on “Grey’s Anatomy” (acting, directing and as a producer). Why is having a dance school so important to you?

A: I had to send my child Vivian across the country to go to the Kirov School (in Washington) because there was no school here that I thought was the right kind of school. She was there for several years. And when she finally called home crying, I was like, OK, that’s it. (Vivian was told she could never be a classical dancer.)

It was time to have a school. I call it an academy. Something that they would commit to. And if they would commit, I would commit.

I have missed directing so many movies or starring in this or starring in that because of the children. I just missed doing something with Lin-Manuel (Miranda). But I can’t leave my kids. And this is something that helped me when I was young.

Q: How?

A: When I was a kid in Texas battling racial segregation and all of that foolishness, dance is what helped me pull through. Kids need that.

You know, they don’t list us as essential, but they need to change that model right now in the middle of this pandemic. The arts is essential for people. It keeps them mentally balanced and feeling hope and feeling confident.

Q: In the film, you speak about the racial injustice you faced in studying to become a ballet dancer. What do you hope for in terms of more equality in dance?

A: I don’t just hope, I do. I create an environment that is welcoming to every person who has the spirit of the dance in them regardless of their body type or their ethnicity or their economic background.

Q: I’m curious about your time in New York and when you discovered choreographers outside of ballet, like Martha Graham. What was that like?

A: I discovered them when I was at Howard University. I was a freshman, and my mother feared I might get lost in the academia and the fraternities and the cultural richness of it all. So she found a dance festival in New London, Connecticut. Martha Graham was there. Twyla Tharp was there. Donald McKayle was there. Katherine Dunham’s protégé Talley Beatty was there. Alvin Ailey was there. In one summer. Can you imagine what that was like? Judith Jamison and Dudley (Williams) wanted me to join Alvin Ailey because I was killing that “Revelations.”

Q: What happened?

A: Alvin said, “She’s too young,” and I’m like, “No, I’m not, I’m not.” (Laughs) I was 17, and I was ready to drop out of college and, oh God, did I want to go. But that was the beginning. By the time I graduated from Howard and stepped foot on the street they called Broadway, I was in class with Richard Thomas — he and his wife ran the New York School of Ballet. You’d look up and Margot Fonteyn would be in class. Nureyev would be in class. New York, my God, it was a training camp. I remember auditioning for a show and not being chosen. And at the end of the audition, the director came over to me and told me how talented I was, but that he didn’t need another brunette in the show.

Q: And we know what that is code for.

A: OK? So what I’m passing on and giving to my kids is that they know they belong everywhere.

Q: Because isn’t passing on that confidence what helps to make a dancer, too?

A: Yes, it is. You can go run the world. You could train as a dancer and go to Washington, honey, and pull that thing together. I always say I wish I could put them all in dance class right now and get this mess straightened out.

Q: What would dance class do?

A: It would remind them that there’s something more powerful than they are. And that it’s not just you. When you’re dancing in the ensemble, you have to be a part, and if you’re the leader of that group, then you have to absolutely know where you’re going. Everyone’s following you. You cannot take the wrong step and end up in the pit.

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