Home About the Film Dance Timeline Behind the Dance Biographies Resources Lesson Plans Screensaver
Free to Dance Biographys
previous next
main bio page
Debbie Allen
Born: January 16, 1950
Occupation: dancer
Debbie Allen was born in Houston, Texas, where her father, Andrew Allen, was a dentist and her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer. Her sister, Phylicia Rashad, became well known for her role as Claire Huxtable on the television series THE COSBY SHOW.

As a child, Allen tried to take ballet classes at the Houston Foundation for Ballet, but she was rejected for reasons her mother thought were discriminatory. Allen began learning dance by studying privately with a former dancer from the Ballet Russes and later by moving with her family to Mexico City where she danced with the Ballet Nacional de Mexico. Allen reauditioned for the Houston Foundation for Ballet in 1964, and this time was admitted on a full scholarship and became the company's first black dancer.

After high school, Allen hoped to attend North Carolina School of Arts, but when she was rejected she decided to pursue a B.A. at Howard University (1971) with a concentration in classical Greek literature, speech, and theater. During her college years, she continued to dance with students at the university and with choreographer Michael Malone's dance troupe. After graduating in 1971, Allen relocated to New York City where she would develop her talents as a dancer, actress, and singer in her appearances on Broadway, and eventually in television shows and movies.

Allen's Broadway experience began in 1971 when she became a member of the chorus in "Purlie," the musical version of Ossie Davis' "Purlie Victorious." The following year, when chorus member George Faison left the show to form the Universal Dance Experience, Allen became his principal dancer and assistant. By 1973 Allen returned to Broadway and for two years she played the role of Beneatha Younger in "Raisin," a musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."

Allen began receiving critical attention in 1980, when she appeared in the role of Anita in the Broadway revival of "West Side Story," which earned her a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award. The next year she made her movie debut in the film version of E.L. Doctorow's novel RAGTIME, and then appeared in the hit movie FAME, with a small part as the dance teacher Lydia Grant. When the movie was turned into a television series of the same name, Allen returned as Lydia Grant and developed the role which brought her recognition by international audiences. She remained on the show until it went off the air in 1987, serving as a choreographer, and eventually as a director and producer.

During the 1980s Allen also acted in the television movie WOMEN OF SAN QUENTIN (1983), appeared in Richard Pryor's movie JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING (1985), and played Charity in the Broadway revival of "Sweet Charity" (1986). In 1988 she became director of A DIFFERENT WORLD, and helped turn it into a Top 20 television hit. The next year Allen hosted her first television special on ABC, THE DEBBIE ALLEN SHOW, and later that year she directed the television musical POLLY, which was followed in 1990 by POLLY: ONE MORE TIME. During the 1990-1991 season Allen directed episodes of NBC's FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR and QUANTUM LEAP. Allen was a choreographer for the Academy Awards show from 1991 to 1994, and in 1992 she produced and directed the television movie STOMPIN' AT THE SAVOY.

Allen remained active throughout the late 1990s. In 1997 she realized a decades-long dream by producing Steven Spielberg's epic AMISTAD. The following year, she directed the musical "Brothers of the Knight" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

-- Zita Allen

Burden, Martin. " 'Fame' Comes to Debbie Allen." NEW YORK POST, August 18, 1982.
"Debbie Allen: On Power, Pain, Passion, and Prime Time." EBONY (March 1991): 2432.
Dunning, Jennifer."Debbie Allen Chips Away At the Glass Ceiling." NEW YORK TIMES, March 29, 1992.
Gallo, Hank."Performing Powerhouse: Debbie Allen May Be Small But Then So Is Dynamite." DAILY NEWS, March 2, 1989.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA: AN HISTORICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA. New York, 1993, pp. 2021.

Source Citation: "Debbie Allen." ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.