I first knew Debbie Allen as Ms. Lydia Grant on the 1980s tv series “Fame.” It was one of my favorite shows. Probably my favorite show at the time. I would often recite the line spoken by Ms. Grant in the opening sequence “You want fame? Well, Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying…in sweat.”
Little did I know that sentiment was not just a creation of the writers to be spoken by Ms. Grant, but indeed a mantra that Debbie Allen would carry with her throughout her career.
In 2001, Allen opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DACA) in Los Angeles, California. The academy offers opportunities for young dancers to pursue or, in some cases, discover their passion for dance. About 60% of the students at the academy are provided with scholarships. The students are diverse in age, skill, sex and economic standing. As a way to generate funds for the academy Allen decided to bring the Tchaikovsky classic “Nutcracker” to life for a new generation, as “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
Recently, Shonda Rhimes’ production studio Shondaland went behind the scenes of DACA to produce the Netflix documentary “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
The documentary follows Allen and her team of dance teachers as they audition and rehearse dancers for the upcoming performance of “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” A few of the academy’s dancers are featured as they share their experiences at DACA and how they hope their experiences there will fuel their futures.
Debbie Allen is a busy woman. Not only is she running DACA, she’s also acting, producing and directing for television. Knowing how busy she is makes her level of involvement in “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” all the more impressive. After all these years, she could easily leave it to her staff of choreographers and staff, while poking her head in occasionally to give notes. This is not the case. In “Dance Dreams” Allen is the guiding light in all aspects of the production.
This is where we come back to “You want fame? Well fame costs…” Allen shows her gentle side, mentoring students but rules the academy with a clear vision. No one rolls over her. Not her staff of dance teachers and certainly not her students.
At one point in the doc, some students are late to rehearsal and Ms. Allen is not having it. She lights into the students and lets them know that she’s preparing them for the real world and what the real world consequences are if you show up to work late. She’s pissed and doesn’t hold back.
It’s fascinating to watch how the sprawling production is put together. Debbie Allen is tough. The dance instructors are tough. But, there’s also an incredible support system that exists in the academy. It’s heartwarming to watch Black and brown girls and boys realize their talent. They all work so hard and the journey’s not easy; actually quite difficult most of the time. But, seeing the pride they hold after their performances is not just a reward for the young performers, but for us, the audience as well.
While the documentary is focused on the production of “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” it also serves as a documentary about the life and career of Debbie Allen.
Debbie Allen is a prolific talent. She’s a Tony nominated Broadway actress. She’s an Emmy winner. She’s a Golden Globe winner. As I said earlier, she’s a writer, director, producer, choreographer and actor, all while running her academy, and not in name only. The Debbie Allen Dance Academy is Debbie Allen. She knows her students. She loves her students. She drives her students to be the best versions of themselves. It’s all on display in “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
Watch the trailer for “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” below.