The world knows Debbie Allen as an award-winning actress, producer, director, dancer, choreographer, singer-songwriter and recent Kennedy Center honoree. She’s currently an executive producer and director of “Grey’s Anatomy,” where she plays Dr. Catherine Avery. Our Los Angeles community is lucky to know her as one of our own — a dedicated arts educator with a passion for disenfranchised Black and Latino communities. The Debbie Allen Dance Academy on Crenshaw Boulevard has been part of our community for 20 years. Beyond dance and theater training, the school’s principles are focused on character development. Discipline, creativity and self-confidence are at the core of its mission.
In August, Allen is launching the Debbie Allen Middle School for the Arts, an independent, private school for aspiring young dancers in grades 6-8. The first academic year will begin with students in the 6th grade. In August of 2022, grade 7 will be added, followed by grade 8 in 2023. Each grade level will be capped at 15 students with a total enrollment of 45 students by 2023.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Allen about her new middle school and the importance of arts education. You can listen to more of our conversation on the L.A. Parent Podcast.
What would your middle school self think about this new school you’re starting?
When I was that age in Houston, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I was very serious. But there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. Everything was segregated. I’m still that child in my heart, and that’s part of why I do what I do. I know there is a need out there. These kids just need an opportunity to train. I’m so excited about the curriculum and the kind of teachers we’re going to have. I want teachers who are not going to teach a textbook, but the excitement of learning. It’s about engaging with the students.
Character development is woven into the culture of your school. Tell us a little about your vision beyond dance and academics?
My mother was a poet, a writer, a classically-trained pianist, and we always looked at the world as the universe, not just this block, not just this city. That’s what I want to offer my students — respecting differences, tolerance, friendship, learning that people are different from you, but they’re just as important and equal to you. Also, the discipline of mastering something and finishing what you start is important.
How can parents nurture creativity in their kids?
My mother would make us think the television was broken so we would go outside and be in nature. We need to get young people off technology and cell phones and out in the world. I had family in Louisiana, and I would spend time in the country. My mother moved to Mexico, where they spoke a different language, where the food was different. My dad loved jazz and I was always listening to jazz. I traveled to many places — South Africa, China, Japan, Brazil — that I have a sense of myself in the world and also see all the things the world has to offer. Art, music, dance and literature also spark creativity. I always encouraged my kids to read, to study the classics. It connects you to other people, to the world.
As a mom and a grandmother, what lessons have you learned through your journey raising your kids?
Remember to be the parent. You don’t have to be their best friend. You have to know your children and you lead from behind. You’re there to support, and where they want to go is where they go. You can’t make them be who you are.
Listen to our full podcast chat with Debbie Allen here.