Andy Royston introduces a new series of articles on the women in popular culture who made his world quake.
“I don’t have time for prima donnas. You want to become a dancer? You’re going to have to work.You’ve got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start paying in sweat. I want to see sweat. And the better you are, the more sweat I’m going to demand. So if you never had to fight for anything in your life, put your gloves on and get ready for round one.” Debbie Allen : Lydia Grant in Fame
I’ve always loved ballsy women on screen – from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, through Hollywood hoofers and secret agents, Hitchcock blondes and Film Noir vamps – but Debbie Allen got my attention like nobody else.
I was twelve, and lived for arts. Up until the kids from Fame lit up Thursday night telly I had no real thoughts about living a life of creativity. I lived way out in the Yorkshire coalfields and no-one had ever mentioned the idea of a creative career. My uncles cut coal, built cranes and fought in the forces. My aunts cleaned stores and doctors surgeries and followed men they’d eventually divorce into far off barracks.
Lydia Grant, a character from an American TV show, was talking to her class in the fictionalized New York High School of Performing Arts. But she was talking to me, out there in rural South Yorkshire, and I was listening hard. She was everything I’d ever dreamed of. Strong, driven, wise and beautiful. Of course I was going to listen up. I’m still listening up.
The TV Show Fame was a spin off from an Alan Parker movie – a Babes on Broadway style flick that itself was a teen-friendly rip off of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. The movie script reads like a cross between A Chorus Line and Blackboard Jungle and the movie didn’t really impact beyond the idea of kids in leg-warmers dancing on top of the nearest checker cab in their lunch break .
But to me at thirteen years old all I knew is I wanted to BE there. I sure shit couldn’t dance, sing, (or anything) but this was a multi-racial have-the-party-right-here world that I was ready for. New York City – wherever you are I’m on my way. I just had to find out how to get there.
The back of beyond roughhouse state school I was attending was nothing like this. There wasn’t any kind of multi-racial in the coalfields of South Yorkshire and it was a couple of generations before the concept of (non-ballroom) dancing was introduced to the coalfields (Billy Elliot).
By that time I was long gone.
No schoolteacher ever took me aside and told showed me how a talent for art might fit into the wider world, so when Lydia Grant laid it out so clearly I listened hard. “And the better you are, the more sweat I’m going to demand…” was advice I was ready to hear. I understood hard work (thanks Mum and Dad) but working at creativity was a whole new lesson.
There were characters in Fame struggling with identity and confidence, but I already had confidence in my creativity. How I’d get to party with Gene Antony Ray and Erica Gimpel and live in an loft apartment with a flashing neon sign outside was another matter…
Now I have to admit that I’m hardwired to appreciate beautiful, smart women. I was the first-born son to four close-knit sisters and grew up on lipstick, hairspray, laughter and glamour. The sisters were big fans of movies and musicals. Shirley Bassey provided the soundtrack to my toddling. With sassy older cousins around too (Hi Sandra) it was inevitable I’d grow up in awe of women with wild hair and wilder conversation.
Lydia Grant tap-tap-tapped her stick on the dance studio floor and told a bunch of unruly arts kids the shape of things to come. She not only was the hottest women in the room she looked and sounded like the future. I later found out that she was the first black woman to take the lead role of any American TV show, but to me – brought up on Carmen Jones, Diana Ross and Shirley Bassey – this was just the natural way of things. She seemed very real to me.
That “fame costs” speech worked for ANY kind of career, not just dance. The speech rang in the ears and still rings today.
One More Thing
Debbie Allen today is every bit as inspirational today as she was 40 years ago.
It turned out, though under-used in Alan Parker’s original movie, she’d been cast thanks to a successful Tony winning performance on Broadway (click here). Once the TV show was given the go ahead Debbie was not only was the star turn she was the choreographer of the shows amazing dance sequences. By all acounts she was s tough in real life as she was on the screen.
She went on to win two Emmys and a Golden Globe before taking up a producer/director role on the NBC show A Different World.
Of course after Fame every wannabe with a TV set was suddenly donning leotards and leg warmers and joining Fame academies, and Debbie was ahead of the game.
Debbie Allen’s own Dance Academy is a hugely successful Los Angeles non-profit teaching in the genres of ballet, tap, hip hop, jazz, and African. Her impact in the creative arts cannot be underestimated and not only that she still looks fabulous!
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