Her childhood fantasy was to dance, spread her arms, and twirl around like there was no future. Birds and trees were among those who saw her dance at one point. Dancing provided her with both inspiration and delight. It was simply her second skin and a way for her to escape the rigors of her reality, she explained to Weekend Edition.
But her desire was stifled by racial barriers that focused on the color of her skin rather than her talent to dance.
Deborah “Debbie” Allen’s desire to add a professional touch to her dance skills encountered a snag at the age of 12 when the Houston Ballet School denied her entry to audition because she was African American.
However, after seeing Allen’s drive to dance after her performance, a Russian dancer secretly enrolled her in the school and trained her. She emerged as one of the best dancers. When the North Carolina School of Arts told Allen, at the age of 16, that she didn’t have the correct body type for ballet, she was nearly driven to give up on her goal.
She thought this as a pretext to keep her from dancing since she was African American. Many Black ballerinas had given up because of this obstacle but Allen’s mother, a poet, stayed by her in all these tough times.
Allen attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she met Mike Malone, a well-known choreographer and dancer. Her dream, which had been put on hold, was rekindled when Malone pulled her to the dance floor and coached her. She graduated from Howard University with a degree in theater in 1971. She changed careers and moved to New York City to seek a career in acting.
In 1973, Allen was cast as Beneatha in the musical Raisin. She married fellow Raisin cast member Win Winford two years later, in 1975, to cement their personal relationship. She transitioned into cinema and television in 1977, starring in the NBC series 3 Girls 3. In 1980, Allen landed the role of Lydia Grant, a dance instructor, in the film Fame. She played the same character again in the 1982 television series of the same name. Despite the fact that the show only lasted one season, she won three Emmys for her choreography.
She divorced her first spouse in 1983. The next year, she married professional basketball player Norman Nixon. Allen received her first Tony Award for her performance and choreography in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity in 1986. She transitioned back into the creative profession, this time as a director and producer on the television sitcom A Different World.
She directed Amistad, a film about the bungled 1839 mutiny on a slave ship bound for North America. She wrote the screenplay for Dancing on the Wings, a film about a dancer’s struggles with her body.
She founded her own skincare line for African-American women in 2002, as well as the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in New York, to provide possibilities for individuals of color. She became one of the judges and a mentor on the television show So You Think You Can Dance.
72-year-old Allen comes from an artistic family. Her older sister Phylicia Rashad is an actress best known for her role as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and her brother “Tex” Allen is a jazz musician.