Less than half of the seats in the University of Memphis’ Michael D. Rose Theater were filled to hear the world-renowned Debbie Allen speak Thursday night.
But those that were in attendance not only left knowing an ample amount of Allen’s life story, but also with encouragement to dispel any limitations that would keep them from being successful in life.
Allen, 62, dressed in all black, strutted onto the theater’s stage after more than 20 U of M students provided a dance tribute to her while songs from the movie “Fame” played in the background.
“It’s wonderful coming to Memphis. Soon as you get off the plane you can smell the barbeque,” Allen said, breaking the ice with the audience.
The event was titled, “Black Women in American History: Passionate, Powerful, and Proud.” It was one of the university’s many gatherings for Black History Month.
Allen spoke for nearly an hour on a variety of topics including historical black figures; choreographing for stars like Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey; and starring in the television series, “Fame,” in the 1980s.
It wasn’t these experiences that provided the most insight to onlookers. It was Allen’s openness about her upbringing in Houston, TX during the segregation era, and what limitations she and her family faced.
“We couldn’t go to the park, we couldn’t go to the movies, we could only go to the amusement park once a year,” she said. “I remember telling my mother, ‘I want to be a dancer, but if I don’t get any lessons, how will I be a dancer. I need to take classes.’ My mother tried to take me to the best school in Houston, but we grew up with a real racial divide. I grew up where everything was segregated. They weren’t accepting little black girls at the Houston Ballet Foundation where the best trainer was.”
Fortunately, Allen overcame the aforementioned limitations and blossomed into one of the most successful black women in the performing arts. She’s held careers in dancing, acting, choreography, and directing.
Allen emphasized to the audience that it’s significant for a person to find their purpose on earth, before they decide to spearhead into any endeavors.
“When you find your purpose, you find your way to really live life,” Allen said. “I am so happy with who I am, I’m happy with what I do. I don’t have enough hours in the day, but it’s a joy to be here with you, to share this time, and hopefully give you a little piece of myself. Hopefully you’ll see apart of you reflecting in me that will give you the strength to be.”
The event conveyed to listeners that they must avoid allowing the others' perceptions limit them.
“People can’t know your DNA by looking at you. Let them say what they say. You have to know who you are,” Allen said. “You have to be able to look in the mirror and know who is looking back at you. What makes you laugh? What do you care about? What makes you cry? What will you fight about? You have to know that! That’s passion! That is the core of every human existence.”