Julia Gets Wise with Debbie Allen

Subscribe to Lemonada Premium for Bonus Content

On this episode of Wiser Than Me, Julia sits down with 74-year-old Debbie Allen, the iconic talent known for her work as a choreographer, actor, producer, director, and founder of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Debbie shares wisdom on mentorship, tough love, and thriving after rejection. Additionally, Julia talks about the origins of the “Elaine dance” and discusses longevity with her mom, Judy – inspired by Debbie’s own mother, who is 101 years old.

Follow Wiser Than Me on Instagram and TikTok @wiserthanme and on Facebook at facebook.com/wiserthanmepodcast.

Keep up with Debbie Allen @therealdebbieallen on Instagram.

Find out more about other shows on our network at @lemonadamedia on all social platforms.

Joining Lemonada Premium is a great way to support our show and get bonus content. Subscribe today at bit.ly/lemonadapremium.

Maker’s Mark is a proud sponsor of Wiser Than Me. Celebrate the wise women in your life by creating a custom, personalized label from artist Gayle Kabaker today at www.makersmark.com/personalize.

Hairstory is a proud sponsor of Wiser Than Me. Check out their hero product, New Wash, today at Hairstory.com and get 20% off with code WISER.

This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/wiser for 10% off your first month.

For exclusive discount codes and more information about our sponsors, visit https://lemonadamedia.com/sponsors/. For additional resources, information, and a transcript of the episode, visit lemonadamedia.com.



Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Debbie Allen, Mommy

Julia Louis-Dreyfus  00:01

I absolutely love to dance. It’s funny because I really don’t get to dance much, which is my loss. Dancing is the most joyful thing to do. dancing and singing. Yeah, these are the most natural expressions of human joy, really. I mean, if there’s an upside to social media and okay, that’s an open question, obviously, I think that it’s all these videos of those little babies dancing. You know, babies sing and dance before they walk and talk. That’s how primal dance is. And then to get to see a baby dance with rhythm. Give me a break. I mean, it is just the best, isn’t it? I grew up going to all kinds of dance performances. My mom took us to the ballet a lot. See the New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Abt. And I got to see some great dancers when I was little to Judith Jamison and Gelsey Kirkland. And when I was little, I think this was a nutcracker, and I remember very vividly that I could not stand my seat. So I would go out into the aisle, and I would dance along with the dancers on the stage. And somehow, my mother allowed this. I mean, my memory is it just wasn’t a disruption in any way. I was just contributing to the performance, I guess. That’s what I thought. And then, decades later, when we took our boy Henry to see savvy and Glover to bring into noise, bringing the funk, he was about four. And Henry went out into the aisle, and he danced too. So I don’t know, maybe it’s genetic or maybe it’s just human to want to move rhythmically. I took ballet when I was young for a bit. And the thing that I liked the most was the tutus because I mean, come on, who doesn’t like a tutu? But the truth is that I’ve always felt inside, that I’m a dancer, not trained or anything. But you know, I just I have an inner confidence that I’m good. I’m a good party dancer. But I never really studied dance other than taking movement classes. Movement is actually a big part of my comedy. I love physical comedy. And I incorporate physicality into my performances. I mean, well, I mean, obviously, a lot of actors do that. That is nothing new, but it’s something that I work on a lot. And then, in 1995, might have been 96. I don’t know, I have to look that up. But one of our Seinfeld writers, Spike Feresten, wrote an episode in which my character Elaine had to dance. And this was based on somebody that he actually knew. And I know who it is, but I’m not telling you. Anyway, this person was very respected and admired and looked up to. And then at a work party, this particular person danced, and all of that respect and admiration instantly vanished, because this person’s dancing ability was so god awful was like, non existent. So spike built this into a Seinfeld episode. And I was the lucky recipient of that lack of dance ability as Elaine. And in the script, it says something like Elaine gets up to dance and does these little kicks. And so the little kicks is actually what the episode is called. And I remember the night before rehearsals began, I stood in front of a mirror, and I tried to come up with moves that were weird, and didn’t resemble anything graceful, or rhythmic. And I came up with a couple of options. And I went downstairs where my mom who happen to be staying with us at the time, and my husband were in the kitchen, and I said, okay, you guys, so which one of these is the worst, and I did the two movements. And both my mom and Brad, pick the same one. And that’s the movement, ladies and gentlemen, that I incorporated into the episode. And it’s what people now call the Elaine dance. So then, when we started to rehearse, they had this music track going, and as soon as I heard the music, I couldn’t block out the beat, you know, those weird kicks and putting my thumbs out that they’re gonna look pretty bad, obviously, no matter what, but they’re going to look so much worse if they’re not on the beat. And I really wanted it to be bad. So I had them turn off the music so that I would dance with no beat at all. And then they put the music in later so that my sort of, you know, very erratic, Herky jerky movements wouldn’t have any sense of rhythm whatsoever. And ever since that episode aired, and it became one of the more popular episodes of Seinfeld. Honestly, I can feel eyes on me any time we go to a wedding or any kind of dance anywhere. I can feel people watch me because obviously they’re expecting me to dance, that horrible dance, the Elaine dance. And the truth is that if I actually stumble on that episode on TV, I can’t even watch it because it’s just so god awful ugly just makes me wince. But you know, it did do the trick in terms of getting the laugh. So many years later, I was the lucky recipient. of the Mark Twain award at the Kennedy Center. And you know, they lined up people to say nice things about your whatever. And Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer without me having any idea that they were doing this. They got some real dancers. And they choreographed a whole modern dance based on the Elaine dance. They did that awful move, but they made it into a real dance number. And it was stone cold, genius and hilarious, and they’re just the best. And I’m sure you can watch it online someplace. And really, it’s worth it. Because it’s just fabulous idiocy. They really rehearsed it and it was just such a bold move, what a treat. I love those women. So when I really think about dance, I realize how much dancing has meant to me almost without knowing it. And I wish I dance so much more. Of course, I ain’t dead yet so there can be as much dancing in my future as I allow there to be. And I mean, how beautiful is it that in cultures all across the world, we dance, when we’re happy, we dance when we’re sad, we dance to be funny. People dance to express what can’t be expressed in any other way. I mean, in the end, the body is the best communicator. So, how lucky for us then, that today’s conversation is with Debbie Allen.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  06:29

Hi, I’m Julia Louie-Dreyfus. And this is Wiser Than Me, the podcast where I get schooled by women who are wiser than me.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  06:53

We all know that if you can sing and dance, they call you a double threat. If you sing, dance and act, you’re a triple threat. But what do you call someone who can sing, dance, act, choreograph, write produce direct and run her own dance academy? You’d have to call them Debbie Allen. Born and raised in the segregated south, she is the youngest in a truly prodigiously talented family. One of her brothers is a jazz musician and the others a banker. Her sister is the actress Phylicia Rashad, and her mom Vivian was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1952. Dance was her first love. She overcame deep racial barriers to become the first ever black student at the Houston Ballet School. After graduating from Howard University, she made her way to New York with her sister Felicia, by the way, do yourself a favor, please and look up the video to their song. More than a man, the outfits are so quintessentially 80s and just totally friggin fabulous. Once in New York City. She scored the role of a Nita and the Broadway revival of West Side Story. And she earned her first Tony Award nomination and No, no, no, let’s not forget the little TV shows Fame, and the hit Cosby spin off A Different World. Both of those series were cultural touchstones in the history of entertainment. Not only did she star in them, that’s where she started directing. But how many other women were even directing television in the 80s? Guys, the answer is not a lot. And black women even fewer, she didn’t stop there. She went on to produce movies like Amistad and direct about a million episodes of Major League TV shows, like Scandal, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, and we please we can’t talk about TV without talking about freaking Grey’s Anatomy. That show is a behemoth. It’s on its 20 this season, and Debbie has been integral to the show’s continued success as an actress, director and executive producer. Above all, she is a teacher, a mentor, the tide that lifts all boats. She spends most of her time working at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy DADA for short, and just fulfilled her dream of opening a middle school. She has dedicated her life to nurturing not just her own children, but the next generation of talent. Holy shit, folks, does she have the same 24 hours in a day that the rest of us have I just It does not seem like it at all. And as for awards there plenty from Emmys to a Golden Globe not to mention a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But her impact truly goes beyond all of those accolades. Her daughter calls her tough, talented, effervescent, and a mother to truly all. Goodness I am so excited to welcome a woman who is a whirlwind of energy and creativity on stage on screen, in school and in life. And this is a woman who is definitely wiser than me. Debbie Allen, Debbie, wow.


Debbie Allen  10:01

Wow, Julia, that was more than a mouthful is so much I know. Thank you for this glorious introduction.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:09

Well, you deserve it. And I want to say I feel as I was reading and looking into your life, I have to say, I feel like this show this podcast was built for you. We have so much to learn from you. And I’m dying to talk to you about so many aspects of your life and life in general. Before I do, though, I have to ask, are you comfortable? If I ask your real age?


Debbie Allen  10:31

Yeah, I’m 74 and kicking and kicking.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:34

So that’s my next question. How old do you feel?


Debbie Allen  10:37



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:38

Yeah, that’s what I thought.


Debbie Allen  10:40

Well, because it’s really a mental state of mind.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:44



Debbie Allen  10:44

That really affects your physical being.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  10:47



Debbie Allen  10:48

And I’ve always you know, from high school, I was miss most versatile, so I always had many things to do at the same time. But right now my life is just infused with things that are vibrantly creative. And inspiring for me to do.


Debbie Allen  11:08

The Debbie on Dance Academy is a whole purpose in my life, with these children, and raising generations of human beings that can uplift and change the world. My play that I did last summer Fetch Clay, Make Man is headed to go into into New York.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  11:08



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  11:26



Debbie Allen  11:26

I’m going to see a new play this weekend that they want me to direct that wants to get to New York. Grey’s Anatomy is on the cusp of season 21.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  11:37

How mind blowing is that.


Debbie Allen  11:38

So I couldn’t be more busy, if you will, and more inspired to do what I do and engaged in everything that I’m doing. And then I have two grandchildren that I’m so in love with.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  11:52

Oh, nice. How old are they?


Debbie Allen  11:53

Three and five years old? And the three year old is going to make her acting debut on Grey’s Anatomy in Episode Seven.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  12:05

What got me off the lookout for that.


Debbie Allen  12:07

It’s just too much. It’s great.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  12:09

Well, I was gonna ask you what’s the best part about being your age? But I think it sounds like everything is the best part. Am I right?


Debbie Allen  12:15

Well, you know, if you live a life like I’ve lived and you are healthy. And you have all your faculties you only get sharper. And when you do. I mean, you know, how old is Steven Spielberg?


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  12:27

Yeah, exactly.


Debbie Allen  12:28

No, you, you get better at what you do. And you get more economical with where you spend your time. And you’re more effective in and really, really great way so I feel really good about it. And I’m happy to talk about my age because so many women, you know, curl up and go into a corner.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  12:50

Yes. They’re ashamed. They’re shamed, and they shouldn’t be.


Debbie Allen  12:54

I don’t really know why they shouldn’t be so happy people are dying left and right. And we are living. We woke up vertical Chow. Calm down, wake the hell up.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  13:03

So I learned that your mother who was not only a poet, an artist and activist, a scholar, a playwright, but she’s also 100 years old Debbie.


Debbie Allen  13:12

Yeah, we’re gonna have the 101st birthday in July. It’s incredible. My mom is 100. She’s in the other room. I’m going to take her today to we’ve been doing a whole month of celebration of women. And they were going to have a listening party with us today. She’s the incredible actress that played Billie Holiday versus United States. Yeah, she’s her album is to die for. And mom is going to go with me, she’s going to be my date.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  13:39

Oh, that’s brilliant. That’s beautiful. I would imagine you’ve learned a lot from her about aging, Debbie, right?


Debbie Allen  13:46

No, we don’t talk about aging. What are you talking about nobody.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  13:48

Well, living may I, that’s right. I talked to Diane Von Furstenberg was I talked to her on this podcast and and she said, Let’s not talk about age. Let’s talk about living not aging, but living. So how long have you lived? So you’ve lived 74 years. So what has she taught you about living? What’s your? What has she modeled for you?


Debbie Allen  14:10

Her poetry, her book Hawk, which you can get on amazon.com.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  14:15



Debbie Allen  14:16

Her legacy work which she wrote in 1957 is about man’s transcendence, to a higher level of existence and being man’s search for freedom is really her story. It was her story is an allegory with various characters. And there’s a mantra that we’ve lived with since we grew up, and it’s in, it’s in her writing it’s know your own worlds of being and be true, be beautiful, be free. That is the palette of how we grew up. Knowing your own worlds of being mean. Who are you number one. What is it that affects you? What is it that you connect with? What is it that’s important to you in life? What is it that inspires you to wake up and do something about it, know, your own worlds being and so I’ve been living in my own world for a long time and shared worlds with my sister, Felicia, my brother, Texan also have a younger brother, Hugh Allen is a banker. And we’ve all grown up with a sense of ourselves. With with Mama, kind of at the helm of that.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  15:34

Yeah, you know, I have a similar experience with my mother who’s 90. And she’s also a poet, Debbie. She used to teach poetry and writing. And then when she was, I’m gonna say, 75, she started writing poetry herself. And she’s had two books published. And for me her poetry. Well, first of all, it’s it’s an insight into who she is emotionally, and intellectually, but it’s also it models, an enormous amount of strength. To me, that’s been formative, really formative. And I think you’re talking about your mother’s strength that has clearly taken you along the way in a very profound and meaningful way. I mean, she’s obviously a remarkable person. So I wanted to ask you in 1959, when you’re nine years old, this remarkable mom of yours took you and your sister to live in Mexico, right?


Debbie Allen  16:31

Yep. Yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  16:33

And I read this quote, because you were and I want to be clear, you got went to live in Mexico, because you she wanted to get you out of the segregated south, and.


Debbie Allen  16:44

She wanted to get herself. And we always went with Mama, this is something I’m trying to help parents try to understand, that they have to take their children on their journey.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  16:58

Oh, interesting.


Debbie Allen  16:59

You have to take your children on your journey. And then they will be a part of it. And they will grow as a result of this.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  17:07

So let’s talk about your growing them when you were in Mexico. You said mommy always told us that we were children of the universe. And we had no boundaries. Once we got to Mexico, we were able to see it. So talk about how living in Mexico broadened your horizons, your view of the world and your place in it?


Debbie Allen  17:32

Well, there was no racial segregation. It didn’t exist. I mean, it’s like, going from white to black. All of a sudden, everything was wide open, restaurants, movie theaters, all the things that we couldn’t do at home. You know, when I finally played in neither West Side Story. West Side Story came out in what 57 I was seven years old at the time, but I was already indoctrinated into the musical. I didn’t see Westside story. As a young girl, it wasn’t part of the fabric of my life till later, because every movie theater was segregated in Houston, Texas. So when I got to Mexico with mom, all of a sudden we could theatres, dance classes, we were able to be people, not black people.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  18:25

Yeah, I hear you.


Debbie Allen  18:26

In segregated white America, we were able to be people. And that was, you know, what Mama said was true. That the universe is so much bigger than this little block, the city, the street, and that you have to, you know, get out in the world. And I really wish people had the opportunity to get out of our country. So they could also understand the power of the influence of this country. And also feel grateful for everything that we have, but see what else? What other realities exist. There are other realities outside of America, that are really, things we ought to know about. And they can change our perspectives. Open up people’s lives. So we were in dance class, we were in school. We were I was in the schools speaking. You know, half day English half day Spanish.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  19:18

Are you fluent? Are you fluent in Spanish still?


Debbie Allen  19:21

I used to be more. But I when I speak it, they say I don’t have an accent. And I’m sure as how I learned it, I do need to go and delve back into especially since we live in California, which used to be Mexico. I know this. Let’s call it what it is. Yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  19:38

And but then what about coming back? You have that just extraordinary experience living there. But then what was the transition like coming back to the States?


Debbie Allen  19:47

We were in Mexico for a year only when we came back? Well, we went we went back and forth for a year and a half and then put it that way. But the civil rights movement was just taking the country like a brush, fire. And so, by the time I was back, you know, everything was happening. I remember Dr. King coming to, to my dad’s house for dinner. He was friends with my stepmother. And we were in the streets marching for, you know, just basic human rights and go to a restaurant, to go to a movie theater. You know, when you think about segregation, it’s not that long ago that everything was segregated. Everything, couldn’t go to school, couldn’t go to ballet class, all of these things, right? And we take, we can’t ever take that for granted, especially in the climate right now. With the believe me the erosion of civil rights, the erosion of women’s rights, the erosion of human rights and compassion. Yeah, we have to really look at this carefully. And as a people, as a nation, come together, because I’m telling you, when you get outside of America, we are the hope for so many millions of people outside of this country.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  21:10

That’s right.


Debbie Allen  21:11

And what happens here is what is possible there.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  21:15

Right, also, I want to say that, of course, segregation nowadays. It’s not called segregation so much, but it’s subtle, and it’s ever present. And, you know, I had the blessing to talk to Gloria Steinem, and we were talking about community and she said, well, now look around at your community, who is in your community. And if everybody looks like you, you’re part of the problem. And it’s an interesting thing to really consider in a meaningful way. So to explain what it was like them when you came back to the states and you were the first black student at Houston Ballet School. Can you talk about did you feel other or did you feel apart? What was that experience for you?


Debbie Allen  22:00

It was both. The person in charge was Russian. Madame Tatiana […] , she did not play. She kicked everybody’s ass. She didn’t get what you were. She kicked everybody said she certainly kicked my. So she was tough, tough, tough as nails on me. And everybody, but she was tough on me. And I was the only black kid in the whole school. And there was, I don’t know, it was such a matter of pride that I was selected to go there. And it was a Ford Foundation. Grant that deemed it so that I should be there, which I found out later, which was amazing. And so there were some kids that were a little put off. But you know, when you get into dance studio, and you start dancing, you have to drop all that right and.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  23:00

Did you love her? Did you love her?


Debbie Allen  23:03

I came to lovers […] she used to kick my ass. It’s why I taught unfeigned with a cane.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  23:10

Cane, I saw that yes.


Debbie Allen  23:12

That’s where it came from because she did. I have her cane. They gave it to me.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  23:17

Oh, that’s so meaningful.


Debbie Allen  23:18

To me when she died. And she used to whack us with that cane. Oh, cha. Maybe you can’t do that today. But it certainly did work, right, right. And so that was that was a certain feeling about being the only one but then there were two sisters patty and oh was the other was saying they were two beautiful tall white sisters who had a Cadillac car. And they would pick me up on the way to class on Saturday. And they just adored me. And so I made really good friends. And at the end of the day, which is what I teach my kids dance was my friend. I was there to dance. I wasn’t there to socialize. But I was there to dance and I did learn to dance. And it helped me become Debbie Allen, that everybody loves seeing dance.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  24:23

Don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back with more wisdom from Debbie Allen after this quick break.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  24:41

So when you were 16 you auditioned for the highly respected North Carolina School of the Arts. Is that right?


Debbie Allen  24:47



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  24:47

And that did not work out right.


Debbie Allen  24:49

Now, that was a very painful experience for young woman to have to be the whole hope for your whole neighborhood your community, flying for them. Audition going into the audition, being used to demonstrate to other students of what the routine the combination was. And then being told no, you’re not right, you should go into something else. It’s very painful.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  25:16

What was your take? What did you, what did you learn from that?


Debbie Allen  25:20

I learned a very hard lesson that I couldn’t let someone dictate my future. I couldn’t let one person saying no to me stop me.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  25:32



Debbie Allen  25:33

Because it didn’t stop me. But my mom wasn’t having it so.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  25:37

Well, I know I read you said that your mother said, I can’t believe you failed.


Debbie Allen  25:41



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  25:42

So that was tough.


Debbie Allen  25:45

That that was tough from your own mom and that to me in the airport. But you know what I had to say. Parents need to learn tough love. Because Mom was loving me. She was not letting me be a victim. She was not letting me go. Oh, they didn’t want me which was true. And I think they really wanted many black any black. There was one black person in class I saw. But she was not letting me.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  26:11

But it motivated you.


Debbie Allen  26:12

It motivated me. And it took a moment for me to understand that. But I did come to understand.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  26:19

What do you mean a moment like a year and.


Debbie Allen  26:21

I didn’t understand it. It was hard to have a university and then that was their whole year. Until I started to understand what mom was talking about. It took me almost a year to understand it. Because I was still the dancer that needed to go on.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  26:37



Debbie Allen  26:38

And I was discovered at Howard University is, that girl can really dance come over here. Then I started acting then I started choreographing my whole world opened up then I met Alvin Ailey. And I met you know, Catherine Dunham’s protege, Talley Biddy, and I met Martha Graham, all of that happen. Because dance was always such a big part of who I was. And I had to reclaim that on my own without anybody’s measure of, you know, anointment, or, you know, encouragement, I had to encourage myself.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  27:16

Yeah, you had to own it, and be it. And do you I know the answer to this question. I’m assuming that you give feedback to the kids that you teach in the same way. I mean, I can see that you’re obviously a very tender hearted person, but I’m assuming also that you’re tough with them.


Debbie Allen  27:36

I am, yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  27:37

I bet you are. Talk about giving feedback to your students? How would you characterize it? I know, it’s kind of a weird question. Maybe it’s not a good question but.


Debbie Allen  27:48

It’s a good question. Because in today’s climate, children have rights and you can’t say certain things. But sometimes things that are tough need to be said, straight up, no chaser, boom.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  28:00

Can you give me an example?


Debbie Allen  28:02

Okay, there was one kid who was really talented. And I could see that they could become even a director, choreographer, I can see that and how they move in the class. But they started becoming a bully, and so I pulled this child aside and said, do you want your peers to value because you’re creative and inspiring, or because they’re afraid of you? And that made that child stop and think.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  28:32

And did the child change their behavior?


Debbie Allen  28:34

Yeah, the child changed. Yeah, they change. I suspended them for a little while. And sometimes you have to do that. You know, or I can say, sometimes I’ve had to make people understand who they are. One girl in my class and my rehearsal, beautiful black girls so beautiful, dark complected beautiful. But never dancing with the sense of how beautiful is it? Why are you dancing like the ugly duckling, stop it? Look in the mirror. You are an African goddess. Look in the mirror. Look in your DNA pool. Who are you? Stop it.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  29:15

Did it work?


Debbie Allen  29:16

Yeah, it worked.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  29:21

That’s so good.


Debbie Allen  29:23

Having a pair today why you call it ugly doctor because she is acting like that. And she needs to be told and has to be clear. You know, we have to. It’s a time right now with all this going on in education and the truths that are not able to be told or don’t want to be told. This is a time when kids need to get it straight.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  29:42

So you’re giving it to him straight?


Debbie Allen  29:44

I am.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  29:47

So you started your career. Essentially, when you started your career on Broadway. Can you talk about the rigors of that? Like I mean, that is cuckoo bananas isn’t not in In terms of what is demanded of you, for however many shows a week it is I’m assuming eight shows a week. Nine shows a week?


Debbie Allen  30:08

No, not like being in a dance company. If you’re in a dance company, you are dancing straight up, maybe 30 or 40 minutes. In a Broadway show, you might be in two numbers, three numbers, you got time to put your feet up, go outside, steal something, get arrested and come back up to say, it’s not like a dance company. There’s nothing more demanding than being in a dance company, which is why I’m trying to make young people understand that because there’s a lot of competition schools out there that are great. They’re really teaching wonderful things. But you have to do more than tricks for 45 seconds.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  30:48



Debbie Allen  30:48

You have to be able to dance you have the stamina hard for 30 minutes. 30 minute look at Jude Jamison’s cry, Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece that he choreographed for her. That piece is 15 minutes long. And it’s just her whoa, that.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  31:07

I think I saw that when I was little. I think I saw that because my mom used to take us and we saw Judith Jamison, and I’m pretty sure because I remember. Yeah, no, gosh, she was so long.


Debbie Allen  31:19

I know. She’s over here on my coffee table. That’s a sculpture of her right there.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  31:23

Yes, that’s, that’s right. Arms up, right?


Debbie Allen  31:27

Yes, this is her doing cry. Oh, my goodness, Tina Allena, fantastic artists who passed not way too soon. Was the artist that created that.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  31:40

Well, that’s a beautiful, that’s a beautiful piece of art, no doubt. And as she was, so I am, as the Brits say, gobsmacked at your career, from a female perspective that you started directing in the 80s. And I mean this because you’re a woman. I mean, and even today, women are obviously still severely underrepresented in directing. Do you remember that first episode that you directed?


Debbie Allen  32:10

Very well.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  32:12

Tell me.


Debbie Allen  32:14

Well, I was certainly the beloved choreographer of fame. The crew came to really love me, the DP who did not like me at first came to love me.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  32:27

Why did he not like you?


Debbie Allen  32:28

Because I had all these ideas. And I was not from film school. So I didn’t have limitations. And I was trying to push the envelope of what we could do.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  32:37



Debbie Allen  32:37

And, and then I had the blackest girl and the whitest boy dancing together. I can’t like that. I said, well, you gotta find a way to light up because they can dance together every week. Sometimes directors would go home and I’d finished it for them because they didn’t understand how to shoot dance. And I gladly did that with no credit. Just wanted to get it right. So then the crew was like, we need Debbie. So then the Bill Blinn, who was our showrunner said, okay, Debbie, you’re gonna get your shot. You’re gonna you’re gonna get your shot. And that episode was everything and I was up all night trying to figure out okay, what should I wear? What should I wear?


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  33:17

Your not telling me that really? High sweater.


Debbie Allen  33:19

What should I wear? Okay, should I dress a little mannish? So they’ll you know, listen to me. Or should I go in sexy?  And just you know.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  33:28

What do you wear?


Debbie Allen  33:29

I wore some pink overalls and some lace socks and a T shirt. What I usually wear I just came as myself as yourself and realize that that’s who they really wanted. And that’s who I am. And I was, they were so impressed. And I remember one day when that in my episode, we wrapped it three o’clock early. They said oh, bring her she needs to direct every episode. And it wasn’t that I was rushing. But I always.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  34:01

You just went out you wanna, yeah.


Debbie Allen  34:03

Well, I had studied film by watching movies, movies had been my, you know, into the musical and dance world when I was a kid watching the Nikolas brothers in Ruby Keeler and Jean Kelly and you know, the red shoes all these weren’t normal shear all these great dancers. Katherine Dunham. So I was very much always paying attention to what they looked like in the shots. I didn’t even know I was but I was paying attention to how they were being shot the big shots.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  34:42

Yeah, it got into your bones.


Debbie Allen  34:43

Yeah, I got it yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  34:46

So you went in and you had a real you had a strong sense of what you needed and what you wanted when you and bam, bam, boom, there you are.


Debbie Allen  34:56

Yeah, and I didn’t have anyone there to tell me how to do it. And who became my dear friend was Bill Spencer, my DP who I tell you, he didn’t like me to start, but he came to love me. And I created the Debbie note. And that would be the timecode of the music, the lyric of the music, the movement of the dance, the camera, how it was capturing it. I made that up on my own, it was my way of communicating with people, what we were going to do. Then one day, Bill Spencer took me into the archives of MGM, and showed me the notes from the movies that I had grown up on how they had done the same thing, you know, when heading tively. And no one had taught me that no one told me that he showed me that I was like, wow, I should have taken those I should have stolen that I should have stolen. They probably burned it. Who knows what they do with it but.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  35:58

I wanted to ask you about coming up against Hollywood execs. mainly white male Hollywood execs. And how did you make sure your voice was heard? And where did that courage come from? Because you had to come up against a lot, I’m sure in your career. What was your power in those moments?


Debbie Allen  36:20

Well, it my experience, my experience is really what you’re asking with that I had some of the most powerful men, as my supporters. And fan of my creativity. One of the toughest meetings ever had was with a female, a woman who is very high, high high up, which I was so surprised. I’m just saying it out loud because it’s true, this happened. And I was working at MGM Studios. And we were having a really hard time because you know, any studio has the right to rent out sets to other companies in other places. Even though it’s your show, they can do that.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  37:06



Debbie Allen  37:08

And so we were having this problem on fame. And then we got this really scathing letter from someone very high up denigrating our crew and how we do things and we’re costing money. And then I wrote her letter back, they said, we’re doing this because of your bad decision making what you’re doing to accent. Our crew is top notch, you have no respect. And that created like a, you know, oh my God, who is this this Friday? And I copied everybody he copied.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  37:38



Debbie Allen  37:38

So then I was called Dave, how do you write such a letter? I’m like, when you wrote it. I was just responding to the audience, this part of this conversation. I said, you, you came at us, I’m just letting you know, what’s the real truth. So then I got called into the call the principal’s office. And it was with the woman who was the main person right ahead of this person. And in this meeting, I just watched her playing into her femininity, and with the guys, no, the way she was sitting and talking, all like that. And I just looked at her and I was like, whoa, I’m not going to be like that. That’s not going to happen.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  38:15

Oh my god.


Debbie Allen  38:17

So it wasn’t always men. It wasn’t just white men. Okay, it was who was in charge, if they don’t have a sensitivity to the creative process. And if there’s someone who is just really pushing their own, you know, name on the door. Or credit, which is sometimes the case.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  38:40

I hear you.


Debbie Allen  38:41

It was the system.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  38:42

It was the system, but in this case, it’s a woman who’s sort of perpetuating massage.


Debbie Allen  38:48

Right, the kitty cat. She was a kitty cat.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  38:53

So I want to know what you did in that moment. I mean, how, how did you? I mean, because she’s undermining you. How do we stop doing that to each other number one, and how did you handle her in that moment?


Debbie Allen  39:06

I just really looked at her in a way that I know she could feel. And then when we were in the room alone, and she was telling me, you know, you can’t do this. I said, Well, how do you do what you just did? How do you do that? Oh, and we left it. She knew what I was talking about.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  39:26

Oh, Debbie, that’s incredible.


Debbie Allen  39:28

So that’s my problem has always been my problem that I was. I grew up with my mom having to fight for everything. And I grew up being a person who is creative and honest and not afraid to speak my mind. And that was not always welcomed.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  39:47

So you saw right through to her and you said it. I love that that I’d love that.


Debbie Allen  39:52

So so that’s like, applaud it now, but when you know back in the day when you buy you yourself, have to stand up for who you got to stand up.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  40:04

That’s right.


Debbie Allen  40:05

And you might be the only one.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  40:09

We’ll be back with Debbie Allen in just a moment.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  40:24

So in 1988, you were brought in on a different world, the hit Cosby Show spin off to turn that show around, and you were 38 years old. And then again, in 2015, you were hired on Grey’s Anatomy to help turn that show around, which you did. You did in both cases, you’re absolutely in addition to everything else, a fixer, Debbie. So was it clear in your mind that you could do it? And if you had uncertainty at all, how did you power through that? I’m wondering, did you know or did you have any feeling of like, insecurity about coming in?


Debbie Allen  41:02

Well, different world was a world that I knew like the back of my hand, I went to Howard University. And when I was called in, I remember meeting with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, sure. And I asked him see every episode, they said, you want to see every episode, I said, yeah, I need to see what this is. And so in an instant what it was, it just had no cultural identity. And that was just the first place to start. And then there was just such, you know, this happens in this town that what was happening on set was, the actors were not being included in decisions or how things were being done. I had done one episode of Family Ties with Gary David Goldberg.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  41:48

Yes, who was a dear friend.


Debbie Allen  41:50

Oh, really? Yeah. I learned so much from him.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  41:52

Yeah, I did, too. He cast me in my first pilot. Oh, my God, who was the best guy, the greatest guy?


Debbie Allen  41:58

Yeah, what I learned just being there when I was observing before I started directing, they did a table read. Then they opened the floor for the actors to respond to the material.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  42:12



Debbie Allen  42:13

And they actually listened to them. That was not happening at a different world, a different world. Scripts are being written here. You say this. You say that? If you say, oh, instead of up, we gotta take it again. Oh, my Lord, no, this no spontaneity, there’s no joy, there’s no fun or funny in that kind of climate. It can’t happen, so the biggest fight I had was to knock down that barrier between the writers and the, the cast, because they needed to be able to have a common dialogue about how they were doing thing. Yeah, and finding things because I remember one scene we did with Kadeem Hardison, and Jasmine guy that was really in Dwayne Wade. It was a fantasy moment where he was envisioning kissing her, or she was envisioning kissing him. And what I did was I did it all in slow motion. And it was the audience die. They let it was not how it was scripted. I just added something to it. And then I played the song, the audience laugh for five minutes, stop the show. It was so funny. So that’s a gift to the writers. Don’t be Tom, but that’s not what’s on the page. Ciao.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  43:31

Come on, you’re talking about collaboration majorly.


Debbie Allen  43:34

Yeah, because it’s the act. So you know, you can write it. I can direct it. But at the end of the day, the actor has to find it.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  43:41

Yeah, so I know Bill Cosby obviously gave you a big break as a showrunner on that show. And, and I know, you’ve been thinking apparently about doing a reboot of a different world, but it seems it’s been stalled because of his conviction. How do you it? If you don’t mind talking about it? How do you reconcile the opportunity that he gave you? Which was enormous? With what he’s done? How do we how do you how do you square that if you can, in your in your own?


Debbie Allen  44:14

I don’t know if you can square it. I don’t know if you can reconcile. I think you have to look at it for what it is. And there’s no good outcome on either side. That thing things that you wish did not happen. And, and then you look at the times in which these things happened, what else was going on? You know, I used to say, you know, I was always plagued with this on the red carpet. It made me not want to go anywhere, honestly.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  44:49

I understand that.


Debbie Allen  44:50

Because I didn’t I don’t have anything to say. I don’t I really didn’t have anything to say. I mean , I think one of one things I wanted to do. was when was he gonna get some company? When were some of these other people gonna go to jail? right with him? You know? It’s it’s but a different world was a show that, you know, had its merits and stood on its own legs separate from the Cosby Show separate from anything else.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  45:23

Oh no doubt.


Debbie Allen  45:24

And so it’s worthy to continue because Bill Cosby handed me the keys to that kingdom and said go. And he was not a part really of everything that we did. The one thing he did do was when we did an episode about AIDS, he stood behind us and said it ought to happen. That was the one thing he did so the show right now is more relevant, I think, than any time in history is what is a college campus talking about right now, because in any country, when the young people are quiet or silent, that country is just dead, what is important to young people right now? How are we seeing the future? And seeing it through the eyes of a predominantly black university? A black cast would really be a great thing. It’s why the shows right now still a relevant.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  46:20

Oh, it totally is.


Debbie Allen  46:21

It’s very rare, you know, we did shows reclaiming the image of Aunt Jemima, we did shows about the voter registration, we did shows about date rape, we did shows about so many things that they still have relevance.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  46:37

So you, you’ve worked so hard between your you know, between grays and your academy, and everything at the movies, everything that you’ve done. I want to know how you’ve done this and have had a family actually, how have you managed that? For real? I mean, I.


Debbie Allen  46:59

Yeah, yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  47:00

Tell me about that. Life Balance for you, Debbie.


Debbie Allen  47:05

Life balance is tough, it’s very tough, because there’s only so many hours of the day. And in this last few weeks, it’s been crowded, it’s really crowded between Grey’s Anatomy, the development of the projects, I’m working on what’s happening in the middle of school, I have so many talented, I’m going to leave you now to audition. Three kids that want to become a part of my middle school. And I audition, every child that comes in. And they have to, you know, meet a certain level of ability. And, and, and their desire, they don’t have to be all on the same level. But if they have the potential, they have to reap let that let me rephrase it up certain level of potential for me to accept them. And then I have to go raise money. And so I have a few angels that are coming in, then people are starting to recognize the power of education in the arts and helping me and hopefully this will become a model to create because then no middle schools that have the arts, they’re always high schools. They’re never the middle. The middle school is when you need to get them though, that’s where you need.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  48:26

And it’s a critical time of child development as well. But I want to ask you about your own self and taking care of yourself. And take yeah. She’s well, she just throws her hands up. No, but I mean, how do you do it? How what about your self care? Can you just talk I know you have to go. But I want to hear about how you look after yourself. How have you been able to look after your own personal life with your family in the midst of doing all these all these miracles, frankly, that you’re performing in, in the world? And they are miracles? Tell?


Debbie Allen  49:02

Well, I’ve tried I’ve tried to carve out time, especially on the weekend when we’re not shooting although we’re shooting Grace today do I gotta go there to spend that time family grandchildren family, that so I try to get my grandkids every afternoon every Saturday and keep them till Sunday and we do whatever we do or not rollerskate cook movies, walk the dog whatever we do read books. But I need in terms of Debi time, that’s something I have to work on. I really am knowing that I need to work on it because just having time to just go to the doctor and get regular tests, right. You know, when was the last time I had a my dad asked me what was last time he had a mammogram. I was like, Uh, I don’t know. He’s like, you better go Debbie Allen. I said it, so I’m gonna have, you know just take a day and just do a lot of tests just to be current, right? Or just to take time. I wish I had more time to just go to a yoga class. That hot yoga, which I love so much.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  50:13

Well, I don’t, I don’t want to take any more of your time because I actually think you need to find that Debbie time, I want you to find that hour for hot yoga or that hour just to meditate or not, or 20 minutes even to meditate. I do I want to just before you leave, I’m going to ask you some really short questions I like to ask the wise woman that we speak to on this show. Is there anything you’d go back and tell yourself at at 21, Debbie?


Debbie Allen  50:38

I would just say stay on the path […] You’re doing good. you’re doing good kid.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  50:44

Yeah, that’s beautiful. And what are you looking forward to?


Debbie Allen  50:48

I’m looking forward to actually having some time with my husband. Because there are times where I see him in the morning. I see him and I he just walked in here and I waved. I get Dr, right now. Having a little more time with my husband. And we’re talking about going away somewhere to a kind of Spa environment. You know, not someplace where we like we want to go to New York see all the shows the restaurants where we need to go somewhere and just just chill. Where we can read a book that we really want to read. That’s something we have to read. He’s always reading books. I gotta get caught up.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  51:30

Well, I hope you have the time to do that. But it’s been a blessing to talk to you. Is there anything you want me to know about aging?


Debbie Allen  51:39

Stop worrying about aging. Just live. Okay, that’s perfect. That’s perfect, I’m looking at it that way.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  51:46

Yeah, love it.


Debbie Allen  51:47



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  51:48

Thank you.


Debbie Allen  51:48

Thank you, bye.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  51:50



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  51:55

Alrighty, let’s get my mom on a zoom call. I can’t wait to tell her about Debbie.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:07

Hi, Mama. How are you?


Mommy  52:09

I love I’m fine. How are you doing?


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:11

I’m good. I just talked to the incomparable Debbie Allen.


Mommy  52:14

I was so interested to hear about her.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:17

Well, mom, she is a force and has been doing everything. And I do mean everything for decades. I can’t believe how she powers through her life. And she’s been a mentor and she has this dance academy in which she’s extraordinary. And I well, first of all, mummy, I want to talk to you about Alvin Ailey. You took us to see Alvin Ailey all the time when we were growing up. Do you remember that?


Mommy  52:44

Loved it? I loved his work. Yes, right, right.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:47

And didn’t we see Judith Jamison dance mummy?


Mommy  52:50

Absolutely, and she was unreal. Those legs that seemed to go on forever. Her her force, her strength, her beauty. It was such a combination.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  52:59

Combination of everything she had at all. In fact, as I was talking to Debbie, she has a statue of Judith Jamison on her desk. Remember that Judy Davidson was like, it seemed to me anyway. I mean, I’m very short, but she seemed very tall. Norris, right?


Mommy  53:13



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  53:14

Enormous, and so she has a statue of Judith Jamison with her arms up. And that’s how I remembered you to Jamison. With those long arms, right?


Mommy  53:23

Yes, yes. Yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  53:25

Mom, didn’t you study dance?


Mommy  53:26

I did. I took dance all through high school. And my teacher was Carolyn Cates and she had been a rocket. And I have to tell you, that was as good as it got to anybody. We were just so taken with her. Carolyn Cates I adored, but I never really considered myself a dancer. And like, that was not something I was going to pursue. That was not something


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  53:46

Well, what is it about dancer you liked?


Mommy  53:50

the movement and fact that, that I could do it. From the time I was little. When I saw somebody do it. I could do it. I just, you know, I could copy it. And I sort of knew what to do with my arms and my that just, it was something intuitive that I was and I loved it and I found great freedom in it.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  54:12

By the way, her mom is going to be actually 101 apparently in July. Can you envision yourself getting that old man?


Mommy  54:19

Oh, yes. Yeah.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  54:21

Yeah, I think I can envision it too.


Mommy  54:23

I mean, I may not who knows? But but I have recently talked to a 98 year old woman who is here.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  54:30



Mommy  54:30

And the retirement community live in and had some wine with her in her place. Then ran into her at the at a wonderful jazz trio that we all had. She’s, she’s very much into music, although I didn’t know too much. And so then the jazz trio is playing some jazz improvisations with some sort of old fashioned songs like lovely Just the Way You Look Tonight. So then people said me Aryan Her name is Mary Marin come up. So they wheeled her up. And she’s spry and sprightly, very beautiful, very Ricci looks at. And so she began to sing, and I’m telling you something, my jaw dropped. Everybody took a deep breath it, it was perfection was sick, and she sang two songs. I can’t remember the second one. Every note was perfect. And I was so nervous everything Oh, God, make it make it. And afterwards, I went up to her, I said, Marian, I’m so envious of you. That was so wonderful. And she said, and I said, I had no idea you had this kind of voice. And she said, Oh, I used to saying that the blue note.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  55:46

Oh, the famous New York jazz club, no way.


Mommy  55:49

Yeah, her voice. I can’t tell you joy. If you when we when we see each other next if I can possibly get hold of her. And if we can possibly get her to sing, you would die. You would.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:01

Oh my god, we got to get a hold of her.


Mommy  56:04

But all of a sudden, then the 98. And I will say oh, by the way, she went to Duke where I went. And then I was thinking what she was just eight years ahead of me. And you know that that’s in that I thought and by the way, she said, we’re in a sorority? And I said oh yeah, but they didn’t amount to much at Duke. And she said, well, I was in one, two. And so we were both in the same sorority?


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:25

No way.


Mommy  56:27



Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:28

Well, Mom that is incredible.


Mommy  56:30

I said to her, you know, we had a handshake in that sorority. I said, I can’t remember. Can you and we’re so we’re trying to fiddle out with our fingers. You’re trying your fingers and […]


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:41

Kick it over it?


Mommy  56:42

Yeah, I can imagine.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:44

Well, I’m ready. I’m ready to book you at the Blue Note now, the blue note.


Mommy  56:49

Maybe I can start carrying a tune for.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  56:53

Exactly, this is what not to do, that you won’t be doing at age 98 is maybe singing with the jazz too. Although if you want to sing mom go ahead and sing.


Mommy  57:03

No, I’m not going to but you know what I am thinking of doing? What I do are harmonicas and I’m thinking of learning to play the harmonica.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:11

Okay, why do you have to?


Mommy  57:13

I don’t know.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:17

I think you should learn how to play harmonica.


Mommy  57:20

That’s difficult, but I can try you know.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:23

I think you should try and then I think you and Marian. You got a group going here. Okay, mommy, well, this was fun to talk about and I love you tons.


Mommy  57:34

Oh, thank you, Annie. I love you and I love talking about it too. And forgive me for getting on my bandwagon. No, that’s what we’re here for.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:40

We need you on your bandwagon.


Mommy  57:41

Oh you do Okay, well let’s start over.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus  57:45

Okay, love you bye.


CREDITS  57:56

There’s more Wiser Than Me with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content from each episode of the show. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. Make sure you’re following Wiser Than Me on social media. We’re on Instagram and Tiktok at @WiserThanMe, and we’re on Facebook at Wiser Than Me podcast. Wiser Than Me is a production of Lemonada Media. Created and hosted by me Julia Louie Dreyfus. This show is produced by Kryssy Pease, Jamela Zarha Williams, Alex McOwen, and Hoja Lopez. Brad Hall is a consulting producer, Rachel Neil is VP of new content and our SVP of weekly content and production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Paula Kaplan, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, and me. The show is mixed by Johnny Vince Evans with engineering help from James Sparber. And our music was written by Henry Hall, who you can also find on Spotify or wherever you listen to your music. Special thanks to Will Schlegel, and of course, my mother Judith Bowles. Follow Wiser Than Me wherever you get your podcasts. And if there’s a wise old lady in your life, listen up.

Spoil Your Inbox

Pods, news, special deals… oh my.