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Deborrah Kaye “Debbie” Allen

Born January 16, 1950, in Houston, Texas, the third child of Pulitzer-winning poet Vivian Ayers, and dentist Arthur Allen. Allen was three when she began taking dancing. By the age of four she had become determined to be a professional performer, and her parents enrolled her in dance classes at the age of five.

Allen’s parents divorced in 1957, leaving mother Vivian as the main caregiver for Debbie and her siblings. Under Vivian’s watchful eye, the Allen children were expected to complete writing assignments to encourage their creativity, and each of them had to perform household chores to establish independence. Debbie’s mother also taught her children to try new things. In 1960, on a whim, Vivian took Debbie and her siblings to live with her in Mexico. “She didn’t know anybody in Mexico,” Debbie later recalled in the Washington Post. “She didn’t speak Spanish. She was looking for another level of experience…I respect that so much.”

After nearly two years in Mexico, Allen and her family returned to Texas, where the 12-year-old Debbie auditioned for the Houston Ballet School. Although her performance was good enough for admission, the school denied her entry based on the color of her skin. A year later, a Russian instructor at the school who saw Debbie perform secretly enrolled the aspiring dancer. By the time the admissions department discovered the situation, they were so impressed with her skills that they let Allen stay in the program.

But that wouldn’t be the end of Allen’s segregation struggles. At 16, during what she believed was a successful audition for the North Carolina School of the Arts, she was chosen to demonstrate technique for other prospective students. Later, however, her application was rejected because her body was “unsuited” for ballet—a criticism often used to discourage black dancers.

The rejection hit Allen hard, and for the duration of high school, she focused mainly on her studies. An honor roll student, Allen entered Howard University, and graduated cum laude from the institution in 1971, with a degree in drama. She headed straight for Broadway after college, and in 1972 she landed several chorus roles, eventually making appearances on television, in commercials and series.

In 1979, Allen had a brief moment in the spotlight when she landed a small part in Alex Haley’s epic TV mini-series, Roots: The Next Generation, which discussed race relations in America. But Allen hit it big in 1980, after she starred in a Broadway revival of West Side Story as Anita. Her performance earned her a Tony nomination, and the critical acclaim necessary to land a role as a dance instructor in the movie Fame (1980). Fame won several Academy Awards, and helped launched a dance fad across the U.S. The wild success of the film evolved into a successful television spin-off in 1982, in which Allen also co-starred. For her role as choreographer on the show, Debbie snagged three Emmy awards for choreography.

After Fame was canceled, Allen headlined Bob Fosse’s revival of the musical Sweet Charity, for which she was honored with a Tony award. Then in 1988, Allen stepped behind the camera to direct The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. (Her sister, Phylicia Rashad, had starred as mother Clare Huxtable in the popular The Cosby Show franchise.) Allen boosted the show to the top of the ratings, continuing to produce and direct the sitcom until its finale in 1993.

In 2001, Allen opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, California
( The nonprofit school offers a comprehensive dance curriculum for students ranging in age from four to 18, regardless of financial status.

Allen has received several honors for her work, including an honorary doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts— where she had originally been rejected. She also earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Women in Radio and Television.

Allen is married to former NBA star Norm Nixon. They have two children.

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