• Industry

Debbie Allen Wins Special Emmy

Dancer. Choreographer. Actress. Writer. Producer. Director. Debbie Allen’s career spans more than three decades, and she has broken more records in her career than most. On September 19, the Television Academy will honor her with their prestigious Governors Award at the 73rd Emmy ceremony. This special prize is given in recognition of numerous contributions to the television medium through multiple creative forms and in Allen’s case, her philanthropic endeavors around the world. The iconic artist was chosen this year for her unprecedented achievements in television and her commitment to inspire and engage marginalized youth through dance, theater arts and mentorship.

Deborah Kaye Allen was born in 1950 in Houston, Texas. With her brother Andrew and her sister, the now-famous actress Phylicia Rashad, the family lived in Mexico during her childhood to escape racism and segregation in America. As a result, Allen is fluent in Spanish. Always an avid dancer, she landed the role of Lydia Grant in the TV series Fame in 1982 for which she won a Golden Globe. She told the HFPA then: “I am a Broadway gypsy. I started in the dance chorus line of a show and worked my way up to where I am now.”

On Broadway, she played Rita Moreno’s role, Anita, in West Side Story and acted in Sweet Charity, both of which garnered her Tony nominations. But it is her work as a director and choreographer that defines her most. She always wanted to dance, even at five years old, and credits her mother for encouraging it.

“I dance almost every day”, she said, “If I’m not dancing, I’m thinking about dancing, which is also almost the same. Healthwise, I have to protect myself, because of the two different jobs I have, so I drink a lot of watermelon juice, pineapple and carrot juice.” She cites ballet as the reason she started out dancing: “That is the basis of my training. I have studied and experienced many other techniques of dance, but ballet is the source of longevity.”

Because of her international upbringing and lack of the burden and the experience of racism in her childhood, she was unencumbered by limitations: “I believed I could replace Shirley Temple. I always believed I could do everything that I’m doing now. I always felt I should be on Broadway, that I should be on television. In the movies, I never felt any limitations as a child.”

This self-confidence coupled with drive made her the achiever that she became in her record-breaking career: she has choreographed the Academy Awards an unparalleled ten times, holds four honorary doctorate degrees, and was appointed by former President George W. Bush to represent the United States as a Cultural Ambassador of Dance. And she is an artist in residence at the Kennedy Center. Her choreography jobs include working with Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Gwen Verdon, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Dolly Parton and Savion Glover. She has also directed and produced on TV: Fame, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Jane The Virgin, Empire, Insecure, A Different World, Everybody Hates Chris, Stompin’ at the Savoy, Polly, That’s So Raven, Cool Women, Quantum Leap, The Fantasia Barrino Story and Christmas on the Square. On top of which she is one of the executive producers of Grey’s Anatomy, in which she also stars in the recurring role of Dr. Catherine Fox.

She started the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2000. Her goal was to expand the reach of dance and theater arts to low-income students in Los Angeles and later all over the world with a comprehensive dance curriculum including numerous styles of dance. Under Allen’s direction, the nonprofit school today provides classes for over 3,000 participants each year, scholarships grants and special classes for cancer patients, seniors, and women and children who have experienced domestic abuse. The HFPA is proud to be among the schools’ supporters. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Allen has expanded her studies virtually through the Debbie Allen Dance Academy Virtual Dance World, a series of custom and on-demand classes available through Zoom. Her star on the Walk of Fame can be found at 6904 Hollywood Boulevard.

The reason for her special Emmy honor was best summed up by the Governor’s Award selection committee Co-Chair Eva Basler: “Debbie Allen has been a creative voice for a generation of performers and storytellers and has left an indelible mark on the television industry,” she said in a statement. And Co-Chair Debra Curtis added: “Debbie’s commitment to mentoring underserved communities has been nothing short of extraordinary. She has shared her gift and love of dance and choreography with countless aspiring performers across the globe.”