Review: Entertainer Debbie Allen showcases teaching skills in new Netflix documentary

Creative Commons

“Debbie Allen” by John Mathew Smith & is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

by Trinity Bland, Opinion Editor

Best known to fans of ’80s television, the Oscars, televised dance competitions and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Debbie Allen is an actress, choreographer, director and producer that has been a powerhouse in entertainment for decades. 

For as much time Allen has spent as a creator, she has become a cultivator of arts. 

The spotlight is on Debbie Allen, the teacher, in the new Netflix documentary “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”

The dance-school theme — in both fiction and nonfiction — is a fascinating one. Any discipline that involves enrolling young children and pushing them to utter brilliance is going to stir some ambivalence in the audience. Watching Allen force tough love onto her students and yelling at them for being late, getting distracted, or not extending a leg far enough, there’s a sternness to it. 

“What we’re doing is we’re just uplifting lives every day,” Allen said. “I’ve been growing generations of young people who bring humanity and a joy and a positive look on life into the world. That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years or longer, even before I had the school.”

Since Allen founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, also known as DADA, in 2000, alongside her husband Norm Nixon, after her daughter had been discriminated against at another dance school, she has been educating and teaching young dancers seeking to learn their craft.  Regardless of their financial situation, DADA is dedicated to providing technical dance training to the next generation and provides scholarships for those who need it. Most DADA students end up going to Broadway or some of the most prestigious dance schools worldwide. 

Due to the pandemic, DADA transitioned into a virtual dance studio with classes via Zoom. Since March 17, Allen has hosted a free live dance class on Instagram every Wednesday and Saturday, and students can learn all sorts of styles. 

Starting in 2009, DADA has performed “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” a contemporary retelling of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet that serves as a showcase for DADA students and an annual fundraiser. “It’s not just ballet. It’s far from that. There is hip-hop. There is flamenco. There is salsa. There is Bollywood. Children come in and see this wonderful diversity of music and dance styles, and those beautiful costumes and everybody can see a reflection of themselves on that stage,” Allen says. 

While this film is about the kids as they move through the month-long rehearsal process, it also encompasses Allen’s personal history and how it has influenced the way she runs DADA in addition to the way she runs her annual Christmas production. 

Allen talks about growing up in Houston during times of segregation and facing rejection from a dance world that has kept — and in many places continues to keep — a tremendously rigid perception of what a dancer can and should be. 

One story in the film involves Allen being rejected from a dance company and told to study at the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, in reference to the renowned New York City dance company that’s produced elite Black dancers for decades. This acknowledgment of the ways Black dancers and dancers with certain body types have been excluded is a constant theme throughout the film in a poignant and reflective manner.

The film is produced by Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, which is also behind Grey’s Anatomy, and former “Scandal” (also a Rhimes creation) producing-director Oliver Bokelberg, who made his feature documentary directorial debut.

Coincidentally, Rhimes, and Allen first met through DADA. Rhimes’ daughter was a student there for over a year before the two became friends which led to Allen appearing on Grey’s Anatomy and eventually stepping into the role of actor, director and executive producer on the show. “Our relationship was purely dance master, mother-daughter,” Allen says. “That was our real first relationship. As a parent, I didn’t even hardly speak to Shonda for the first year. I thought she deserved anonymity. I thought she deserved to just be her daughter’s mother.”

Bokelberg, who is also a DADA parent, captures both Allen’s incredible journey as a dancer and the parallel stories of the young students she educates through the Academy and “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker through a celebratory lens. He started filming rehearsals in 2016.

“When Oliver asked me if he could come and shoot, I was really busy,” Allen recalls. “I said, ‘Just stay out of my way, and I don’t want to know you’re in the room.’ So, he really captured something that I would say is cinéma vérité, the behind the scenes of it all because we would forget he was there. Every aspect and every bit of that footage is very spontaneous and true to the moment.”

Bokelberg conducted the on-camera interviews, but Allen says it was effortless shifting their professional relationship to this more personal experience. “You can be yourself when you’re with someone you trust,” she says. “My life is somewhat of an open book. People are always curious about me in interviews and how we started, what happened, the whole thing. There’s a lot to navigate there from Houston to Howard [University] to Broadway to Hollywood. I trusted Oliver, so I could say whatever.”

In addition to trusting Bokelberg with her story, Allen had the reassurance that he knew DADA inside and out. The documentary features the journey of several of Allen’s students, boys and girls of all ages that study at DADA, one being Kylie Jefferson, the youngest dancer to study at DADA at age six and is now widely known from Netflix’s Tiny Pretty Things, a new show about the cutthroat industry of ballet. 

While most of the world was introduced to Allen as a fictional dance teacher, Lydia Grant on “Fame,” audiences can now revisit her career through that lens. “It is my truest self. I have been dancing through every aspect of my career,” Allen reflects. “I was on camera dancing. I was choreographing the Oscars. You name it. I have been dancing through it all. So, this is very appropriate. Dance has always influenced and informed my ability as a director. That is a very strong aspect of my style. It’s just innate.”

The students of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy are a testament to her career just as much as anything she has directed or produced, or the nominations she’s accumulated. 

“I’m not really thinking about being remembered right now. I’m thinking about what is needed,” she confesses. “DADA has given me a real purpose in life beyond something greater than myself. Everyone should be so lucky to find a purpose in life, no matter what it is. It can be something small, but something where you are somehow making the world better.”

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcrackeris available on Netflix.