Debbie Allen can succeed at just about anything, from her iconic role as dance teacher Lydia Grant on the 1980s series Fame to starring as powerhouse surgeon Dr. Catherine Fox on Grey's Anatomy and now (apparently) to teaching Cardi B how to plié in a ballet class. Her creativity simply never wanes.
This year, with the release of Dance Dream: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, we get an inside look at the versatile entertainer's storied career. The documentary, and first Netflix release to come from Shondaland, also celebrates the Debbie Allen Dance Academy or DADA's annual Hot Chocolate Nutcracker performance (which will be virtual this year).
Allen is no stranger to overcoming obstacles, including racism, which she faced on her way to becoming the Houston Ballet Foundation's first Black dancer in 1964. "My love for dance was always stronger than anyone telling me that I couldn’t do it," she says, adding that her unending drive comes from her mother, poet Vivian Ayers Allen. "My mother, who calls herself 'the space age poet,' really convinced all of her children that we were special when we were little. She convinced us that we had a place and a voice in the universe," Allen recalls. "And she would always tell us to be true, be beautiful, be free." These are words of wisdom she hopes to impart on her many dance students at DADA and beyond.
When the pandemic hit in March, Allen leaped into action: "We evolved into a virtual global dance academy overnight because of COVID," says Allen, who has been hosting weekly virtual classes she plans to continue into the new year. Allen is quite proud of her gusto to turn one of the toughest years in history into an opportunity to reach even more students across the globe. "It's something that can help people overcome a lot. Especially doing it during this COVID time," she says. "People need something else."
With Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, that "something else" is instilling a blend of world music and dance styles, and a cast of mostly dancers of color, into the traditional Nutcracker performance, which has been a major fundraising show for DADA for years. The documentary about it, and about Allen's school and career, was filmed and directed by Oliver Bokelberg, a Grey's Anatomy DP, and executive produced by Shonda Rhimes (obviously also the brains behind Greys), both of whom sent their children to learn dance at DADA, according to LA Mag. It's the first project to kick off Shondaland's $100 million overall deal at Netflix, inked in 2017, and will be shortly followed by Bridgerton, a buzzy adaptation of a series of Julia Quinn novels, out on Christmas.
For her part, Allen hopes she's bringing more than just holiday cheer with the Dance Dreams film, but a sense of inspiration and motivation as well. "I talked to people from Israel, Brazil, the Middle East, Italy Germany, upstate New York, right here in L.A. — all over," she says. "And what they are taking away [from the film], what they are saying to me, is that it is making some of them want to dance, for sure. But it's also making them believe in themselves and believe that if you have a dream about something, it takes hard work. You have to put in the work. And if you do that, you can get there."
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is streaming now on Netflix.