Debbie Allen - Parade.com Interview 2017
Debbie Allen is a show business legend, having choreographed the Academy Awards, danced on Broadway, and directed, produced and starred in TV mainstays Fame, A Different World and Grey’s Anatomy. But the Houston, Texas, native’s dreams were almost dashed in her teens when a prominent arts school rejected her for having the “wrong body type.”
“My mom didn’t let me feel sorry for myself,” she remembers. “She said, ‘You can’t let somebody else tell you what you are going to do.’ That’s something that I teach my kids: ‘You can’t let somebody kill your joy.’”
Allen ultimately received a scholarship to the Houston Ballet Foundation, a life-changing opportunity that inspired her to create the nonprofit Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2001. We caught up with her to talk about playing Catherine Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, her 2018 resolutions and whether we’ll see Fame on TV again.
I love using dance to inspire people of all ages. Teaching ages 4 to 94 is so rewarding. At the Dance Academy, we have a program called J.O.Y. for cancer patients/survivors and that has been amazing. We help seniors stay in shape with our Colibri Arts Program. And I love giving young people a chance to experience the arts. When I see those kids dancing, all ethnicities, all ages, sizes, body types, everybody all together, it makes me feel that I am doing something good.
I started a lunchtime dance class at Grey’s Anatomy. I teach it, and everyone from [star] Ellen Pompeo to the makeup artists and writers show up. We try to do it twice a week. When I get too busy to teach, my daughter will step in for me.
I love playing Catherine. She loves her son, Jackson, more than she loves herself. That’s how I love my children. She wants to be a part of Jackson’s life, but sometimes she has to step back—and I have to do that as well!
I’m looking forward to turning 68. I don’t look at aging as something I have to come to terms with; I’m glad I’m still here! This is what everybody hopes for, that they will be healthy and still energized by their work as the years go by. My mother is 94 and she’s a poet and is still writing. The blessing of life is to be mature.
I don’t let my age stop me from pursuing new things. I’m youthful by nature and still curious about things. I’m still reading books. I love learning about the nature of humanity – where we come from, where we are going. I’m very curious about the business of the universe. I’m very curious about life. So I think that keeps me still wanting to try things. I’m very slow to look back and always moving forward.
I would do a Fame reboot in a heartbeat, and I would be the one to make it happen. I’ve actually had some conversations about it. We’ll see what happens, but there’s a really good chance.
Directing yourself is not easy. I’m very critical of myself. I don’t want to watch myself so I have to divorce myself from myself. I have to just let it go and let it be what it is and just do my work. But I love directing. It’s a big Rubik’s Cube until you put it all together in editing. I love that challenge.
In my free time, I like to read, be with my friends and laugh. I also love to cook. People rave about my honey-baked lamb, garlic ginger shrimp, and lemon rice. I’m a good cook. And whenever I can, I like to go to the spa and relax in some serious mineral water.
Freeze Frame…Stop the Madness is my dance driven narrative that addresses the gun violence in our country. It will help the audience feel up close and personal with what they read about in the papers. And we motivate them to help bring the community together to be at peace. It’s about healing. It’s a very balanced portrayal of what’s happening in the world today.
I’m very motivated by women like Shonda Rhimes and Wallis Annenberg. Their generosity inspires me to do what I do and keep going. You could easily turn it off and go somewhere on a beach, have a drink and get a foot rub. But it’s not who they are and it’s not who I am.
I’ve accomplished a lot in my life but none of it has been easy. I’m a big advocate for the fact that women need to be supportive of other women and give opportunity wherever they can. There are still many women who get into places of power and they like being the only one and that’s not cool. It’s so amazing here in Shondaland with Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers and the unspoken Eden of how things work. We don’t even have to talk about diversity; it’s the nature of the universe over here. It’s the DNA.
Getting to some downtime is the hardest thing to me. If I could just go into my own little dance studio, lie on the floor and play music, it would be so cool. That’s my ideal way to unwind.
My favorite way to ring in the New Year is with family and friends, champagne and music. I fill my living room with balloons and it makes my whole house look like a club. I make a big pot of gumbo on New Year’s Eve and we eat it while watching football the next day.
My New Year’s resolution is to have more inner peace. My mother, Vivian Ayers, once wrote, “The inner beauty creates the outer reality” and that really moved me. I live close to the ocean and I want to do more long walks there. And I like sitting out under the stars at night. Those are things that help you find inner peace so you can start to hear yourself think again.
In 2018, I’m also vowing to sneak in some quality time with myself. I never put myself first. It’s hard, but I gotta put myself somewhere close. I’ll strive for somewhere in the top five! •