By Kari Forsee
Photo: Courtesy of MGM Debbie Allen started her career as a dancer. She landed a small role in the 1980 film Fame, and when the dance hit became a TV series, her character became a pivotal part of the cast. Almost 30 years later, Debbie is more than a dancer. She's a choreographer, director, producer, actress and dance academy founder. Now, this multitalented, multitasking mother of two looks back at the first two seasons of Fame—now available on DVD—and looks forward to the release of the 2009 film. Plus, what she sacrificed for fame and why she started her own dance school. Kari Forsee: Seasons 1 and 2 of Fame, the TV series, was just released on DVD. What was it like to revisit old episodes? Debbie Allen: It's relevant to me, still. When I look at those stories, they're the stories of what's going on right now. I think it holds up—the dancing really does hold up. I think Fame was the first of its kind ever on television. I know there's a new show, Glee, now, but Fameactually did that kind of awhile ago. And, you know, now there are different kinds of songs. We didn't have rap music then, and we didn't have hip-hop. It was kind of all coming. We had break dancing. I remember we did our first break dancing episode, and Ice-T was one of the dancers. He's going to be mad that I told on him, but that's the truth. KF: When you look back, did you have a favorite dance number from the first two seasons? DA: I'm going to always love Lydia's and Coco's [dance], "I Thought I Had It This Time." They were battling for the same part. That was in the first season. I loved the story of it...that the dance took the story somewhere.
KF: The Season 2 DVD has a "Fame: Then and Now" special feature. Can you tell us what some of the actors are doing today?
DA: Everybody is still doing stuff. I mean, we lost Leroy [actor Gene Anthony Ray], which is so hard for all of us. We lost our boy wonder. Erica Gimpel is still doing what she does—acting and singing and dancing. Carlo Imperato is building sets for major studios now.
KF: I read that one of the dancers choreographed the new film version.
DA: Marguerite Derricks was my white lightning on Fame. She started with me, I think it was the second season. I used to call her white lightning. She's become a world-class choreographer. ... I am just so proud of her work in this new movie. It's really fabulous.
KF: You're also involved with the 2009 remake. Tell us about your role.
DA: Lydia Grant is now the principal. We knew that she would be running things. She was running things then, so she's really running it now. That's who I am in the movie, and that's an appropriate role. It's really what I'm doing every day in my real life at the dance school, which is a whole other purpose in my life right now.
KF: How is the 2009 remake different from the original film and TV series?
DA: The storylines are very much the same. When we did it originally, it was an R-rated movie. Now it's PG. That's a difference. It's still grittier than High School Musical, but in the original movie, there was nudity. And here, there is a suggestion of it, but it doesn't quite go as far. But it does, in its emotion, go the distance with those characters. There's a young singer who's trying to figure out how she's going to find her way. There's a young dancer who's trying to figure out whether to stay in school or join a company. So some of those storylines are very much the same, even though they're new characters.
There's no one named Leroy. There's no one named Coco. But when that young girl Naturi [Naughton] starts singing "Out Here on My Own," you're going to feel that.
KF: In the opening credits of Fame, you tell students "fame costs." What have you sacrificed for fame?
DA: Oh my goodness, one of the main sacrifices is that you have to give yourself to the art. You become a slave to your creativity. I can count the number of resting days I've had in the last 25, 30 years. I've been working constantly, because I'm just driven by that.
I have children. I took my children everywhere I went. I was nursing Thump, my son, on the concord, and Vivian, I was holding. She was a toddler. So that was tough. I took my kids everywhere, and sometimes, they would tire of it. They'd be like: "Mom, no. Don't sign anything else. Come on. Don't talk to those people, Mommy. You don't know them." So it did take me away from my family a bit.
Fame is a byproduct of the work. Fame was never what I was after. I was always in it for the art, and fame is a path. It's a journey. It's not like one event. You could do one thing, but does that sustain you? Here I am, all these years later, still directing and staging Mariah Carey. Why is that? I've stayed current. I'm in the mix. I'm not trying to be youthful. I'm just on top of things. Interested, current...it's just who I am.
KF: One of your passions that came out of your fame and success was your school, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Why did you decide to start this academy?
DA: I was asked to teach dance everywhere in the world that I went after I did Fame. [People asked]: "Where's your school, Miss Allen? How can I send my children?" I taught dance when I was staging the Oscars®. I did 10 Academy Awards, and I would have to stop and make them understand that this was something by Katherine Dunham—they didn't know who she was. Or, "This is very Fosse." I was always teaching.
When I had to send my daughter, Vivian, away to train, that was just devastating. It was an opportunity for her, and I was happy she wanted to go, but I was like, "Why don't we have this here?" So I decided to jump in there, and I started the school without any funding.
One day, you looked up and there were 20 black girls, 10 white girls, four Latin girls and two Chinese girls dancing flamenco together. How amazing was that? That was amazing. I did it because if I hadn't had the opportunity to train with that amazing Russian teacher in Houston, Texas, I wouldn't be who I am today. I wanted that opportunity to exist.
KF: Whatever happened to Kyle, the young dancer who came on The Oprah Show and received a scholarship to your dance academy? What's he doing now?
DA: He's been at my school all these years, starring in my new show.
KF: Is that OMAN...O Man?
DA: Yes. We did it in Washington, D.C., and Mrs. Obama saw it and thought it was the best thing she'd ever seen...that every young person in America needed to see it.
KF: Tell us what this dance musical is all about.
DA: It is about Muslim and Christian culture, told through the eyes of two young boys who happen to meet in an international military school and the differences in those cultures, as well as how much they are alike. And, at the end of the day, why they should be best friends. We examine the culture, we examine the world, the geography of the dessert—I make it come alive. The sand dunes are alive. The sun is alive. I bring it alive in dance.
KF: Is OMAN...O Man! being staged in Los Angeles?
DA: It's going to open in Royce Hall in Los Angeles on December 10. It's a huge undertaking for us.