Dance Legend Debbie Allen on What Ballet’s Big Moment Means for Race in America

The ‘Fame’ star reflects on a time before Misty Copeland became the first black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.

Debbie Allen. (Photo: Courtesy Debbie Allen)

Jul 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

A week ago, dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen sat in the Metropolitan Opera House and watched Misty Copeland make her New York City debut in one of ballet’s most coveted roles: Odette and Odile in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. After the show, they toasted Copeland’s success with glasses of champagne.

Known to fans as the star of Fame, in which she played a close-to-the-heart role as a passionate teacher who molded dancers to have a relentless work ethic, Allen had yet another reason to congratulate Copeland this week. On Tuesday, the 32-year-old was promoted to ABT’s principal dancer, becoming the first African American woman in the company’s 75-year history to assume the title.

“Misty Copeland is coming up, and the Confederate flag is coming down!” Allen told TakePart, adding that it’s no coincidence the achievement happened when it did, just a week after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Southern leaders moved to take down the Confederate flag, and President Obama delivered an impassioned eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people who died in a South Carolina church shooting.

“Misty Copeland is part of the week where the world has changed,” Allen said. “The world has been uplifted, and she is part of this cultural moment that is global. In one week, all of these things happened. One week. It’s not by chance. The greater power is trying to let us take a look at ourselves.”

So, Why Should You Care? Allen is living proof of why Copeland’s accomplishment is such a big deal. The country has changed quite a bit since Allen, 65, got her start at the Houston Ballet Foundation. She became the company's first black dancer in 1964 after initially being denied admission—her mother believed it was based on racial prejudice.

Allen later graduated with a BFA from Howard University and appeared in several Broadway productions before landing the role that would bring her international fame in the 1980 movie Fame and its subsequent TV spin-off.

“When I traveled the world and saw people emulating [my Fame character] everywhere from India to South Africa to Spain, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ That's powerful. That’s powerful,” Allen said. In the series, she played the tough-talking, no-nonsense dance instructor Lydia Grant, who stressed the importance of pain, sweat, and dedication to her students at a performing arts high school in New York. Allen’s real life mirrored her role as a teacher: She taught choreography to stars such as Paula Abdul, choreographed the Oscars 10 times, and in 2001 founded her own nonprofit dance school, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

Based in a historically black neighborhood of Los Angeles, the school is training the next generation of young ballet dancers inspired by Copeland. Classes for students ages four and up include everything from classical ballet to modern dance, with the aim of teaching skills that will also boost confidence and self-esteem. The Debbie Allen Dance Academy recently partnered with the Carousel of Possible Dreams on a fund-raiser to bring arts education—and a portable performing arts stage—to cities like Atlanta, where civic arts budgets have been dramatically slashed. “I was once one of these kids who couldn’t go to ballet classes because I was black,” Allen said. “My goal is just to provide an opportunity for more young people.”

Allen recalls a time long before Copeland when being a black ballet dancer was even more of an anomaly than it is today. “I remember when I was the first black dancer at the Houston Ballet Foundation, and there was no one else,” Allen said. “The board was upset when they heard there was a black girl, and when they saw me dance, they said, ‘OK.’ ” Decades later, in 1990, Lauren Anderson made history when she was named principal dancer of the Houston Ballet, becoming the first black woman to achieve the honor at a major American ballet company.

“When I saw the brochure and saw this beautiful chocolate ballerina for the Houston Ballet, I was just so excited for her,” Allen said, recalling the first time she saw Anderson perform, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1997, Desmond Richardson became the first black male dancer to be named principal at ABT, but he only stayed with the company for a year. Allen said he never got his due.

Talking about Copeland, Allen becomes breathless and overjoyed, peppering her sentences with compliments like “amazing,” “beautiful,” and “incredible.” “This is at the Met. It’s American Ballet Theatre. This is New York, and my God, it’s an incredible accomplishment and so well deserved,” she gushed. “We’re thrilled and we’re so happy, and we’ve been waiting for this to happen and wanting this to happen. She is so iconic to so many people everywhere. And I’ve loved her a long time, since she was a little girl.”

Copeland’s promotion and her visibility on a national stage has the power to redefine the nation’s narrow perceptions about ballet dancers. “Misty’s story is all our stories. It’s why we love her so much. It’s why we’re rooting,” Allen said. “This is a big one, and we’re going to stop and have a moment. Let’s talk about how the world is changing, and she’s a part of a major shift in global culture.”