Raising the barre – Debbie Allen lends star power and expertise to Baton Rouge programs for young dancers

It was a late-night rehearsal in 2008, and the young dancers were tired and losing focus. The intense daily practices for the first-ever production of the Debbie Allen Dance Residency were beginning to wear on this group of boys who had never experienced anything so rigorous, and they chattered among themselves instead of concentrating on their instructor’s words.

“The legend,” as one of those boys, Taylor Mitchell, calls Allen, was not pleased.

“She said, ‘When I worked with Bob Fosse, I listened. When I worked with Steven Spielberg, I listened. Need I say more?’ ” Mitchell recalls. “I know she could have named more. I have never seen a group of people change their attitude in a rehearsal so fast.”

As those budding performers quickly learned, it’s also true that when working with Debbie Allen, you listen. And for the past five years, young dancers in Baton Rouge have had the rare opportunity to do just that, thanks to the annual dance residency program that bears the name of “the legend” and has pointed a growing number of local students in a new career direction on the stage.

To appreciate how remarkable it is that such a program is happening in the Capital City, one must first consider Allen’s distinguished career as a dancer, actor, choreographer, director and producer. Perhaps known most widely for her role as dance teacher Lydia Grant in the 1980 movie and subsequent TV series Fame, she earned two Emmy Awards for her choreography on the series and another for choreographing a TV special. Her Broadway performances in Sweet Charity and West Side Story both garnered Tony nominations. She choreographed the Academy Awards shows for 10 years, produced the 1997 film Amistad and has directed countless hours of TV programs ranging from A Different World to Everybody Hates Chris to Grey’s Anatomy (on which she also has a guest-starring role this season). When she’s not on the set, she can usually be found at her own dance school, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, in Los Angeles.

But her rise to fame and Fame began right here in south Louisiana. Her father, Andrew Arthur Allen Sr., was a Baton Rouge native, and as a young girl Allen spent many summers at her family’s 90-acre farm in Port Allen. She remembers it as an idyllic time and place.

“It was very mythical to me,” Allen says, recalling the sounds of roosters in the morning, the fresh smell of the grass and even the taste of the water. “Those are great memories. … And the family dinners were just amazing. You couldn’t beat Aunt Fanny’s succotash, or her gumbo.”

Allen says it was a “big trip” whenever she and her family got dressed up and rode the ferry to Baton Rouge. Their outings often included shopping and a stop at Magnolia Cemetery, where many of her ancestors are buried. “Visiting that cemetery has always been a big part of our family tradition,” she says. “In fact, every time I come to Baton Rouge I still go and visit my grandmother’s grave there.”

So it was a welcome homecoming when Allen’s friend Derek Gordon, with whom she had begun collaborating when he worked at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, invited her to be part of a new dance-related venture in Baton Rouge. Gordon’s Rolodex had become stuffed during his stints at the Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center and other acclaimed arts organizations, but he had a special bond with Allen, whom he had discovered was actually a distant cousin. Having returned to his own hometown and become head of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, Gordon had a desire to help kids experience the arts, and he knew just who to call to help flesh out his new idea.

“I would have gone anywhere he was,” says Allen. “And Baton Rouge was another home for me anyway.”

The Debbie Allen Dance Residency was born, with a mission of offering young people from all over the city an opportunity to be part of a professional dance musical featuring a variety of dance styles. Allen pledged to bring along some of her academy’s master dancers and choreographers to help train the youngsters, but she admits that she didn’t know exactly what to expect.

“I didn’t think that there was very much opportunity [for dancers] here,” she says. “But to my surprise, I was happy to find that there were some wonderful dance schools, and there is a vibrant cultural appreciation here.”

Major funding for the first residency and for each year since has come from the Office of the Mayor-President and the Metro Council, as well as the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation.

“When Derek explained what they’d be doing to help children of all ages and races, there was never any doubt in my mind that we should support this program,” says Mayor Kip Holden, who also had come to know Allen many years earlier.

Paula Pennington de la Bretonne says Gordon knew of her own love for dance when he asked if the foundation would be interested in helping bring Allen to Baton Rouge.

“I was thrilled that kids would get an opportunity to work with her, who otherwise would not,” says De la Bretonne, who has since come to know Allen well. “She is one of the most well-rounded women I have met in a long time. She is such a tremendous person and engages so many people who wouldn’t otherwise support the arts.”

For the residency’s first year, Gordon and Allen decided that, appropriately, they would put on a show she first created for the Kennedy Center under Gordon’s guidance. Brothers of the Knight is a tale of 12 brothers who wear their shoes out each night by dancing. Allen and her team of faculty—among them Broadway performers, pop-singer world-tour choreographers, and even a dancer from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video—have also created entirely new works during their stints in Baton Rouge, adding elements to suit the young dancers’ skills and styles.

Winning the part of one of the brothers in that first show was Taylor Mitchell, who much later realized that his involvement with the program would shape his life’s path.

“Working with Debbie Allen is what gave me the determination to reach for greater things in the art of dance,” says Mitchell, who is now a junior dance major at the University of Arizona. “Of my friends at school, who come from many different backgrounds, none of them have quite the experience that I had working with such a legendary mentor.”

Like Gordon, Allen knew this project would be a way to nurture young dancers. She has taken the time to know them personally, inviting some back to her California dance school for summer intensive programs and even writing a few college recommendations.

“There is great talent coming out of this community,” she says. “They’re like sponges: They’re ready to just take it all in.”

Each year’s production sees more than 125 dancers audition for about 65 to 85 spots in the show. “Debbie gives as many talented dancers as possible the opportunity to perform,” says Arts Council Acting Director Kathy Scherer. Those chosen typically range in age from 6 to 26 and have varied levels of training; Allen and her team find ways to fit them all together so that each one’s strengths appear in the spotlight.

“Some of the dancers don’t have formal dance training, but I think that’s part of the beauty and purpose of the program,” says Mitchell’s mother, Nita, who volunteers with each year’s residency. “Debbie Allen comes to Baton Rouge on a treasure hunt, searching for those hidden diamonds in the rough. She has a special gift for recognizing potential.”

Allen says she hopes the young people who participate in the residencies will continue their dance studies, which in addition to cultivating technical skills will also build up their “discipline, self-esteem and creativity.”

“Certainly, some of them will not remain in the arts professionally, but it will help define them as human beings,” she says.

Like Taylor Mitchell, however, a few do find a calling in their footwork. Though the program has only been in existence for a few years, several Debbie Allen Dance Residency alumni have gone on to carve out their own success stories. Mitchell is among a handful who are enrolled in the University of Arizona’s prestigious dance program; others study dance at colleges from New York to California. Alumnus Blue Cervini is currently touring the country in a production of West Side Story; still others are instructing a new generation of dancers in Baton Rouge and beyond.

“I owe so much to Ms. Allen and what she has given me in terms of dance education,” says University of Arizona freshman dance major Alex Doyle. “Looking back, I am shocked but incredibly thankful for the opportunity Baton Rouge was able to provide. These experiences shaped me as a dancer and a person.”

“Ms. Allen knows my name, and I feel she truly cares about me as an individual and wishes to help me with my career,” adds Doyle’s Arizona classmate Brooke Brady. “Because of her, I am able to pursue my passion.”

While it may be the most visible this month, as the sixth annual production is slated to take the stage, the dance residency program is not Allen’s only link to the city’s cultural and educational offerings. Former Congressman Cleo Fields chose to honor Allen’s achievements by naming the school of music and performing arts at his Louisiana Leadership Institute after her. “When you think of dance, you think of Debbie Allen,” Fields says.

Some 40 students are currently enrolled in the school’s dance program, and one of the highlights of their training is when Allen pays a visit and leads a special class. He adds that the institute’s dance curriculum—like its other performing arts curriculums—has the same mission as the entire Debbie Allen School of Music and Performing Arts: “to give kids opportunities they would otherwise not have.”

“I think Debbie has a way of talking to people and really getting their attention because she’s so passionate about this,” Fields says. “She’s on a mission to get more people in Louisiana to care about the arts, and I think she has gotten the ears of some people who are really going to make a difference.”

Fields says having performing-arts programs in Baton Rouge that are linked to Allen is a boon to the city’s future. “I think it speaks volumes,” he says. “We’re just really fortunate that she has good roots and ties here and hasn’t forgotten those ties.”

When the dance residency’s founder and most fervent champion, Derek Gordon, passed away last September, the question of whether that program would continue hung in the air for a moment—but only a moment.

“When we came for the funeral, everyone was gathered and mourning, but also committing to keeping everything he had started going,” says Allen. “He was so dedicated to developing young people, and there are so many people who have been ignited to keep that going. Derek really helped light a fire in Baton Rouge that will never go out.”

Allen says despite her busy schedule—along with guest-starring in Grey’s Anatomy, she is also directing the Lifetime network series The Client List and planning a show in Australia—she, too, is devoted to the cultural growth of the region she remembers so fondly from childhood.

“If I can make time for one project, it’s going to be Baton Rouge,” she says.

To the growing comradeship of individuals associated with the Debbie Allen Dance Residency, its most profound impact comes from its power to forge lasting bonds.

“It’s a true example of community spirit that crosses all supposed barriers—a unifying, almost spiritual experience,” says Nita Mitchell. “It is so inclusive in its nature, providing opportunities for children of different skill levels, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds. … They are blended into a family, and their families in turn truly connect with one another and support all of the children, rejoicing in their accomplishments.”

Now 21, Taylor Mitchell is looking forward to a career as a dancer and choreographer. But somewhere on his bookshelf sits a high-school yearbook that reminds him of where it all began. Beside his senior picture is a printed quote from Fame that he selected: “You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying … in sweat.” Also on the page, scrawled in ink, is an autograph of “the legend” herself, who made those words famous before he was born.