Dion Watson had absolutely no interest in becoming a dancer when he was growing up.
“As a teenager, to me, there was nothing more whack than dance,” said Watson, who grew up in the Compton section of Los Angeles. So when Dion’s mom forced him to attend a dance audition with his sister at a newly opened dancing school nearby, Dion didn’t even bother to learn the audition routine. Though recovering from a football injury, Dion had no intention of following his mom’s advice to try dance as a way to help him recover.
Debbie Allen and her protege Dion Watson, courtesy of Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
It didn’t matter. When it came time for everyone to do the routine the dancing school’s director announced that any young men aged 15 or older would automatically be accepted because the school needed boys.
“My day was ruined. I couldn’t believe it,” Watson said. “It was the worst best day of my life.”
That’s not a typo. Because what Watson thought was the worst day of his young life turned into a new beginning. The director was Debbie Allen and the school was her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood. “She took a person who absolutely thought dance was not even a factor and turned him into a choreographer,” Watson said about himself.
Today, Watson is an L.A.-based dancer/choreographer whose credits include dancing or choreographing for music superstars like Elton John, the Black Eyed Peas, Fergie, Mariah Carey, P. Diddy, Nelly Furtado, Alicia Keys and Usher. He also performs in Allen’s productions and teaches for the woman who, even when he insisted he wasn’t going to dance, refused to let him quit.
For Allen, 68, encouraging the Dions of the world is a big part of what she’s about.
Debbie Allen and her protege Dion Watson, courtesy of Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
“The Debbie Allen Dance Academy is so much more than a dancing school for me. I’m part of an oasis that is nurturing a new generation of incredibly creative and gifted people,” Allen said of the non-profit dance school she opened in 2001. “I have to say the work I’m doing there is the most purposeful thing in my life. Allen receives the 2018 Dance/USA Honor Award this month in Los Angeles at the Annual Conference for demonstrating extraordinary leadership in the dance field both through her artistic excellence and her sheer force of vision to nurture the next generation. As a triple threat on Broadway, a film and television star, a writer, director, producer and visionary, there’s not much that Allen has not accomplished over her long career
“Look at what’s happening in the world. Who is reaching back? Who is giving back? It’s about that.”
Allen is effusive as she shares stories from her studio, not just about the students like the four-year-old who recently stopped her in a hallway to show off a time step or parents who share news about their children’s latest accomplishments like gaining acceptance into a dance company. She’s just as energetic as she shares stories about alumni who are now successful heads of businesses. “Nurturing these students, watching them grow is something that is a drum beat for me. Really, this is my heartbeat,” she said.
The school is far from the only thing that keeps Allen going. Indeed, given the lengthy list of ongoing performances, projects and appearances supporting various causes, it’s hard to fathom how Allen manages it all.
Among her biggest ongoing projects these days is the hit ABC television drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” in which she not only stars as Dr. Catherine Avery but serves as an executive producer and director. Not surprisingly, Allen has established a lunchtime dance class that she teaches for the cast and a crew a couple of days a week, something she also did when she helmed the long-running sit-com “A Different World,” which ran from 1987-93 on NBC.
Allen’s part in television producer Shonda Rhimes’ universe, informally known as Shondaland, has also seen Allen direct episodes of Shondaland stalwarts “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”
And Allen even recently found time to team with Rhimes and Dove Soap’s Self-Esteem Project to direct an hour-long documentary film that launched the project’s second season. The documentary’s theme of mentoring young people, especially young women, struck a chord, Allen said. “It’s something I do every day at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy,” she said. “I’m mentoring young men, young women every single day. This is the role I play. It’s just my life.”
That project also reflects another hallmark of Allen’s career – making important cultural statements. For example, her academy’s production of the holiday ballet, The Nutcracker, reimagines the story as a musical (usually star studded) called The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, that includes tastes of a diverse range of dance styles from jazz to Bollywood to hip hop.
And Allen is also working on a new dance-based, hip-hop musical, FREEZE FRAME … Stop the Madness, which focuses on the impact of gun violence. That kind of statement-making work is part of the Debbie Allen magic that has, over the years, earned the admiration of fans like choreographer Camille A. Brown.
Brown praised Allen’s multi-faceted career, saying in an email statement, “Debbie Allen’s ability to dance, choreograph and direct for Broadway, television and concert stages has broadened my perspective as an artist. She shows us it is possible to be all things – building up and across the map.”
And Brown pointed to a controversial episode of the 1990s hit sitcom “A Different World” as an example of Allen’s willingness to use her platform to address important issues. “A very strong memory I have is of the ‘Mammy Dearest’ episode of ‘A Different World’ Debbie Allen directed that focused on Black stereotypes,” said Brown, whose own, groundbreaking choreography has looked at stereotypes through characters on television and film, through the movement language of black girls, or in relationships between black men and black men and women. She added, The importance of history and our ancestors told through dance was bold and beautiful.”
“That show was on another level and the reason why I wanted to go to college,” Brown said. “I didn’t end up going to a [historically black college or university], but the image of black people being celebrated through time — our struggles, pain, joy, and courage — never left me.”
Other hot button issues the show dealt with during its six-season run included the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict, date rape, domestic violence, AIDS, and a range of topics under the umbrella of racism, sexism, homelessness and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Allen’s work as producer and director for the sitcom is just one of her many credits over a career that has spanned more than 40 years.
She has performed in every area of the performing arts – on Broadway Purlie, and Tony Award-nominated turns in West Side Story and Sweet Charity; on television including “Roots: The Next Generation,” “Fame” and most recently “Grey’s Anatomy,” and in film, including Fame – when a small role made an indelible impression — and Ragtime.
Her lengthy list of choreography, directing and producing credits for the stage, television and feature films includes choreographing the Academy Awards for 10 seasons. And she’s also been a film producer for projects like Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Allen laughs when asked how she continues so many projects that reach into so many different areas. “I was always doing and had the ability to do a lot of different things,” said Allen. “I was voted ‘Most Versatile’ in high school.” Indeed, back in the day at Jack Yates Senior High School in Houston, Allen was the girl who seemed to do everything and do it well. Not only was she on the school honor roll for her academics, but she danced. She took 10 classes a week at the prestigious Houston Ballet Foundation, which had once rejected her because she had the “wrong body type.”
Said Allen, “I love directing. I love dance. I love choreographing. I love traveling the world and connecting with people through the language of dance.” For those who work with her, like Dion Watson, who tours with Allen on Freeze FRAME, consistent themes can be found in everything Allen does. “She’s the hardest working woman I know,” he said. “When we’re on the road she’s the first one up in the morning and the last one to go to sleep. She always has the most energy in the room. She’s not one of those people who sits down and directs.”
“Whenever I choreograph with Ms. Allen, I tell everyone ‘I don’t choreograph for her.’ She knows exactly what she wants, how she wants it and the rhythm she wants.” And, how about in the studio? Watson laughs.
“Okay, yeah. Everybody says she’s a drill sergeant and to some degree she can be,” he said. “But she’s so patient and nurturing. That’s what I think of when I think of her.” Watson uses his story as an example. Even after studying with Allen for a year, he was ready to quit. “I grew up in Compton. I literally came off the street. When she accepted me into the school I didn’t have any background, nothing,” he said. “You pride yourself on not caring what [anybody] says or thinks. But she said, ‘Wherever you are, I’ll work with it.’ She’s the biggest genius at seeing talent when no one else sees it.”
Still, at 18, he was ready to quit so he could find a job and make money. Allen persuaded him to stay. Today, Watson credits Allen with enabling him to travel the world as a performer and choreographer. He said she’s like a mother to him. “She’s tough. But she’s a mother to everyone. She’s nurturing. She’s always there for everyone no matter how busy she is,” he said.
Allen credits her mom, Vivian Ayers Allen, for raising her and her older sister, the award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, for that combination of energetic drive and being a nurturing presence for others. “She raised each one of us to feel we were the most special and that we could do all the things we wanted to do and that there were no boundaries,” Allen said.
And Allen pointed out that her many projects, like her current efforts to raise money to support improvements to her academy’s building, are part of a bigger purpose. “We’re right here in the heart of the community. We really care about young people and want to continue to invest in them,” she said. “That’s my vision. It’s about investing in the future, reaching back and really working to ensure that this younger generation has every opportunity and is encouraged to grow.”
Karyn D. Collinshas been a journalist for more than 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, the Camden Courier Post, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, William Paterson University, Seton Hall University and Bloomfield College in N.J. A faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J., Collins is also a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.
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