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This Day In History: January 16th
Award-winning choreographer, actress, producer and director, Debbie Allen, has been a dynamic force in the world of dance and production for more than four decades. She rose to popularity following her breakout role in the Broadway revival of West Side Story (1980) and has since become a highly-respected name in the industry.
Allen was born on January 16, 1950, in Houston, Texas. She is the daughter of Vivian Ayers Allen, a Pultizer prize nominee for poetry, and Arthur Allen who worked as a dentist. She is also the younger sister of Phylicia Rashad. Allen’s passion for dancing was present from an early age, but racial barriers hindered her from perfecting her craft at institutions for the arts during her teenage years.
After graduating from high school, Allen took the opportunity to nourish her talents as a student of fine arts at Howard University. She graduated with honors in 1971 and pursued roles on Broadway. She landed small roles in projects such as Alex Haley’s Roots: The Next Generation (1979) before securing her pivotal role in West Side Story as the character Anita.
The role propelled her to national attention and earned her a Tony Award nomination. She then played a dance instructor in the movie Fame (1980). Allen earned three Emmy Awards for choreography as a result of her work with the project and was able to co-star in the television spin-off that followed.
In 1986, Allen was awarded a Tony for her performance in the musical Sweet Charity. Two years later, she took her talents behind the camera, working as a producer and director on a variety of projects. Her producing and directing credits include A Different World (1987), Grey’s Anatomy (2005), Scandal (2012), How To Get Away With Murder (2014), Empire (2015) and Insecure (2016).
Allen decided to create Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2001 as a way to help performers of color enhance their skills and transform their lives through the arts. The academy accepts students from intermediate to advanced levels with ages ranging from eight to 18.
Over the course of her career, Allen has been able to work with the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mariah Carey. Her work earned her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991. She is also a Kennedy Center honoree and holds four honorary doctorate degrees. In 2021, Allen accepted the Governors Award at the 73rd Emmy Award show.