There aren't many unsung heroes in the entertainment industry, but if ever there was one, it's Debbie Allen. The actress, choreographer, director, and producer has been a stalwart in the arts for decades, and yet for many she's remained a rather niche figure, best known to fans of '80s television, the Oscars, televised dance competitions, and Grey's Anatomy. These aren't insignificant niches, to be sure, but they're probably what's kept Debbie Allen from being recognized as one of the great entertainers of our time.
One reason Ms. Allen's name isn't more consistently in lights is that so many of her accomplishments have been behind the scenes. She's been a performer, yes, and if you spend any time at all watching her speak you know just what a natural performer she is, but she's spent just as much time as a creator, a shaper of art and artists, and indeed a teacher. It's Debbie Allen the teacher who gets the spotlight in the new Netflix documentary Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.
Directed by Oliver Bokelberg and produced by Shondaland, the film chronicles the production of the Allen's annual Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, a modernized and diversified telling of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet put on by the students of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles. Ranging in age from four years old into their teens, the DADA students are dedicated and talented kids, 75% of whom are there on scholarship. Hot Chocolate Nutcracker isn't just a way to make the Nutcracker more fun and diverse — incorporating hip-hop, Bollywood, flamenco, Egyptian, and Asian influences — but it also serves as the academy's biggest annual fundraiser, bringing in around $450,000 annually and ensuring that these kids can attend regardless of their family's financial circumstances.
As much as Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is a film about the kids as they move through the months-long rehearsal process, it's also a film about Debbie Allen, and we see how her own personal history has informed the way she runs the Academy and the way she's shaped her annual Christmas production. Allen talks about growing up in segregated Houston, having always wanted to dance the dance of the sugar plum fairy. Under a Ford Foundation scholarship, she was accepted at the Mariinsky dance school, under the tutelage of Madame Tatiana Semenova. (If you've ever wondered why Allen's dance-instructor character in Fame carried that big wooden cane, that came from Madame Semenova.) She talks about facing rejection from a dance world that kept — and in many places continues to keep — a tremendously rigid view of what a dancer can and should be. One particular story involves Allen being rejected from a dance company and told to, essentially, take it to Alvin Ailey, in reference to the famed New York City dance company that's produced elite Black dancers for decades. This recognition of the ways that Black dancers and dancers of certain body types have been excluded courses through the film in some poignant and thoughtful ways.
Debbie Allen's dance background led to her making her Broadway debut at age 20, ultimately earning Tony nominations for performances as Anita in West Side Story and the title role in Sweet Charity. In 1980, she starred in Milos Forman's Oscar-nominated film version of the novel Ragtime. And beginning in 1980, she played dance instructor Lydia Grant in the film Fame and its two TV adaptations. The role earned Allen four Emmy nominations for Best Actress and two wins for choreography. That translated into a recurring gig choreographing the Academy Awards, which she's done ten times, becoming synonymous with — and sometimes mocked for — the show's dedication to interpretive dance numbers to reflect the nominated films.
In 1988, Allen stepped in as the creative force behind the scenes on NBC's A Different World, the successful spin-off of The Cosby Show, where she drew upon her own experience attending Howard University, a historically black college. While that series, and thus Allen's contributions to it, always lived in The Cosby Show's shadow, it has long deserved mention for being a smart, funny, and socially aware series, often in contrast to its parent series. After directing 83 episodes of A Different World, Allen would go on to a robust directing career on shows like Girlfriends, Everybody Hates Chris, Scandal, and Jane the Virgin. Along with Steven Spielberg, she produced the Oscar-nominated 1997 film Amistal. She directed the 2008 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring James Earl Jones and her sister, Phylicia Rashad. Just this year she directed the Dolly Parton holiday special Christmas on the Square.
In 2007, Allen began a stint as a guest judge on the FOX series So You Think You Can Dance. In 2011, she took a guest-starring role on Grey's Anatomy as Dr. Catherine Fox, where she remains today as one of its most crucial characters, in addition to coming on as an executive producer and directing 25 episodes to date, including every season premiere and season finale episode since 2016 (with the exception of last season's pandemic-shortened season).
If it sounds like I'm piling on with Allen's resumé here, it's for a reason. Her list of accomplishments is vast. But it's not just the laundry list of credits on display, but the panache, style, and heart she brings to them. So You Think You Can Dance would not have become the long-running series it is without Allen's gravitas and exuberance as a guest judge. Grey's Anatomy has benefited tremendously from her verve. And the students of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy are just as much a testament to her career as the episodes of TV she's directed or the nominations she's accumulated.
The dance-school genre — in both fiction and nonfiction — is a complicated one. Any discipline, from athletics to dance to acting, that involves enrolling children at a young age and pushing them to excellence is going to stir some ambivalence in the audience. Watching Allen holler at her kids about being late, paying attention, doing those stretches, extending that leg, there's a harshness to it. These kids are, as Fame surely told us, paying in sweat. That discipline extends to all the other instructors at DADA as well. But there is a palpable sense of love and acceptance suffusing the atmosphere. "If I'm kicking your ass, it's because I care," says one of the instructors, and you believe it. And you see it in the faces of these kids and they way they talk about dancing, their eagerness to level up to the next dance style, and their ambitions to dance with the Royal Academy or on Broadway or TV.
We see Allen's daughter, Vivian Nixon, a teacher at the academy, describe her mom as "a mother, truly, to all," and we see her as a shaper of not only her students but her Academy as a place that keeps trying to push the definitions and boundaries of dance. We see it in the way Allen amiably spars with Madama Giana, the Russian-accented ballet instructor from the Bolshoi, who's every bit the traditionalist taskmaster we'd expect from that archetype. We see it in the interview bits with April, a scholarship student from North Carolina who works at El Pollo Loco when she's not taking classes and who talks about her "overdeveloped" legs and imperfect feet. We see it in Kylie Jefferson, who was the youngest person ever accepted to DADA and who now speaks with an earned wisdom in her teenage years about how "the craft that chose me was not created in my image."
Since the pandemic started, Debbie Allen has taken increasingly to her Instagram. She's not alone in that, of course; celebrities and normies alike have been instagramming their lockdown routine for months, from bread-baking to sanity-saving jokes and memes. Debbie Allen, however, almost immediately began teaching dance classes on her Insta stories to anyone who wanted to watch and learn. It's indicative, I think, of the kind of shaper of art she's shown herself to be over the years and again in Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. Whether or not she ever gets the accolades she's due, it seems her legacy is guaranteed to live on through her students and her school.
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker drops on Netflix November 27th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.