Debbie Allen, the famous sister of Phylicia Rashad who became a top choreographer

Deborah “Debbie” Allen, choreographer/photo credit: People

Her childhood dream was to dance, stretch her arms and swirl around like tomorrow would never come. At some point, those who watched her dance were birds and trees. She drew her inspiration and happiness from dancing. It was simply her second skin and her channel of escaping the challenges of her world, she told the Weekend Edition.

But, this dream was stunted by racial barriers that looked more at the color of her skin than her ability to dance. At the age of 12, Deborah “Debbie” Allen’s desire to add a touch of professionalism to her dancing skills hit a snag when the Houston Ballet School denied her admission to audition because she was African American.

But, a Russian dancer who saw Allen’s determination to dance after her performance, clandestinely enrolled her in the school and trained her. She came out as one of the top dancers. The racial discrimination staring Allen in her face nearly made her give up on her dream at the age of 16 when the North Carolina School of Arts said she didn’t have the right body type for ballet.

She saw this as a ruse to deny her an opportunity to dance because she was African American. Many Black ballerinas had given up because of this barrier but Allen’s mother, a poet, stood by her in all these trying times.

Allen headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she met a prominent choreographer and dancer, Mike Malone. Her dream which was temporarily on hold was given a boost when Malone lifted her up to the dance floor and mentored her. She completed Howard University in 1971 with a degree in drama. She switched her career path and relocated to New York City to pursue a career in acting.

Allen was cast as Beneatha in the musical Raisin in 1973. Two years later, she cemented a romantic relationship with a fellow Raisin cast member, Win Winford, by tying the knot in 1975. In 1977, she moved into film and television and starred in 3 Girls 3, a series on NBC. Allen secured the role of dance instructor, Lydia Grant, in the film Fame in 1980. She reprised the role in the 1982 television series of the same name. Though the series was for a single season, she grabbed three Emmy awards for her choreography.

In 1983, she parted ways with her first husband. She however married the next year to professional basketball player Norman Nixon. Allen won her first Tony award in 1986 for her performance and choreography in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. She switched once again to other careers in the creative industry, by taking up a role as a director and producer on the television sitcom A Different World.

She produced Amistad, the film highlighting the botched 1839 mutiny on a slave ship heading to North America. She scripted a movie titled Dancing on the Wings speaking to the challenges a dancer had with her body issues.

In 2002, she opened her own skincare collection for African-American women and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in New York to give opportunities to people of color. She became one of the judges and a mentor on the reality show So You Think You Can Dance.

72-year-old Allen is from a creative family. Her brother “Tex” Allen is a jazz musician, and her older sister Phylicia Rashad is an actress best known for her role as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

Last Edited by:iboateng Updated: December 16, 2022


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