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  • Writer's pictureDonnese Monique

The Legendary Debbie Allen & more (#J2FA50)

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

4/8/21 - Just 29 days to go until my 50th birthday and I've lost, wait let me rephrase that. I Got Rid Of 1.4lbs this week, because I NEVER want to FIND these pounds AGAIN!!. That's a total of 33.8lbs since December 1, 2020. I'm almost there!! 13.5 until my ultimate goal weight, but trust me. I'll be very happy if I lose 8.5 more lbs!! I was nervous about going off program for the wine tasting last Friday, but thank goodness I only gained 6oz!! This let's me know that my metabolism is working properly again because my office sent us cheese, jelly, olives and slices of apricot. We only had Tostitos with a hint of Lime in the house, so I ate those with the cheese; since I didn't have any crackers. I'm continuing with my walking 2 - 3 days a week and I've started doing sit-ups too. Now back to my journey...

Four (4) years after I discovered the art of dance and my love for it, the television show Fame premiered on television. OMG!! I was a HUGE fan. I loved watching FAME and wanted to go to that school. When I found out about Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) I wanted to go there SO BAD, but I didn’t mention or request it of my parents because we lived in Maryland and the school is in D.C., so I didn’t think it was possible. I just wanted to take class from Debbie Allen. I wanted her to teach me everything she knew, so that I could follow in her footsteps. Yes! I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. I remember doing a book report on her in Middle School. I don’t really remember what the assignment was. It may have been for Black History Month or something like that, but this was hands down the only report that I was excited to do research for. I learned everything I could about Debbie Allen and it was during this time in my life that I developed the desire to perform On Broadway, Television and Film. I will say, I never really had the desire to choreograph and teach dance though. I’ve always wanted to be the one performing on stage or in front of the camera. I remember going to New York to see Debbie Allen in Sweet Charity and then seeing her leave through the stage door in a long white fur coat. I was in awe of her. Star struck! Definitely her biggest fan. I wanted to tell her that I did a book report on her and learned all about her. I got close enough to get her autograph, but I was speechless. All I could say was thank you! I wanted to tell her how much I admired her and that I wanted to be just like her, but instead all I said was Thank You!

I continued to study and train and dance as much as I could and as often as I could. At this point I had been dancing for 19 years and it was starting to take a toll on my body. Not to mention, I calculated that what I was being paid for a week’s worth of rehearsals and dancing, I could make in just two (2) days on a television or film gig and it wasn’t nearly as demanding and taxing on my body, so I decided to take a break from dancing for a while.

Fast forward to Fall of 1999. My best friend Crystal Bozeman (Shazier Enterprises) told me that Debbie Allen was coming to D.C. to hold auditions for a musical that Debbie Allen wrote, choreographed and would be directing. BFF encouraged me to go and audition so I would not regret it. And you guessed it! I came out of my 1.5 year dance hiatus and auditioned for the one and only Debbie Allen!! My time had finally come! I finally got the chance to dance for Debbie Allen and show her what I could do. I think I danced the best I had ever danced in my life at that audition. I needed her to see what I could do! When I got the call that I was cast/hired I was ecstatic! I was going to be in Debbie Allen’s production of Soul Possessed at the Kennedy Center. 17 years after seeing FAME and longing to meet and work with Debbie Allen, I was blessed with the opportunity to do just that.

I couldn’t believe I was about to work with my idol, my hero, Debbie Allen. Not to mention Patti Labelle, Pauletta Washington (Denzel’s wife), Carmen de Lavallade and many other well known musicians, dancers and artists were in the show, as well.

(Debbie Allen, Me and my cousin Sophia)

I was in the best shape of my life during this show. And I was working hard, so that Debbie would know my name. I wanted her to know that not only could I dance, but I could also act and sing. I remember her asking me to sing one of the solos, in front of everyone in rehearsal - out of the blue. I was so nervous, but I did well and she was impressed.

One late night, after one of our shows, I don't remember how or why it happened, but the Musical Director, Terrence Lee Jones and I, met Debbie at Peggy Cooper Cafritz's home. For those of you who don't know, Ms. Cafritz was an American art collector, educator, civil rights activist, philanthropist, socialite and one of Debbie's close friend's. She and Mike Malone started Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I couldn't believe it! I was "hanging out" with Debbie Allen. I was still very star struck though. Even though I had been working with her for several months now, I was still nervous around her. She took us on a quick tour to show us some of Ms. Cafritz's art and then we sat around the pool and sipped on some wine. I stayed for about an hour or so and then I headed home. I didn't want to stay too long or say or do something stupid to ruin the evening and our "relationship". I was floating on Cloud 9 on my ride home. And as you see it was a night that I will never forget.

Unfortunately, 10 years later, that beautiful home that I visited and all of Ms. Cafritz's art was lost in a fire. And then in 2018, Ms. Cafritz passed away due to complications from pneumonia.

(My Mom, Debbie Allen & Me)

(Patti LaBelle, Me & Debbie Allen)

Because I was still able to kick my forehead, I was excited to be cast in a section with three (3) high school ballerina's from the Kirov Academy, including Debbie's daughter Vivian Nixon. Those young girls had this ole' girl working overtime to keep up with them and I was here for it. We all just KNEW (and hoped and prayed) that this musical was going to go on tour and make it to Broadway, but unfortunately it didn't. We had a run at the Kennedy Center in D.C. and then again in 2000 in Atlanta, Ga and that was it.

Rehearsals started in Atlanta 3 days after I got married. I got married on Friday, July 21, 2000 and rehearsals began Monday morning, July 24th. My husband so graciously agreed to us honeymooning in Sea Island, Ga for the weekend and then he hung out with me at rehearsal for a week. He knew how much it meant to me to work with Debbie Allen and I thank and love him so much for this. I always thought we'd be able to have a honeymoon "do over" for our 20th Anniversary, but as luck would have it COVID hit, so any and all travel plans were cancelled. (Carmen de Lavallade & Me)

During the run of Soul Possessed in Atlanta, the vocalist, whose song I sang for Debbie in D.C. got sick, and low and behold Debbie asked me to fill in and sing the song for that show. The dancer who I was singing for came to me afterwards and thanked me for singing it beautifully and making it easy for her to dance! It made me feel so good. I also talked myself into the Hip Hop section of the show, which Debbie had only cast male dancers for, lol.

(Pauletta Washington & Me)

I was riddled with injuries in Atlanta, but I did NOT miss a show. I jammed my should, sprained my knee and sprained both ankles on separate occasions. During a section rework one day because someone was going to be out for that evenings show, Debbie saw that my ankle was black and blue. She said "Donnese, what happened to your ankle?" I told her that I sprained it about a week ago. She said, "What?! Umm, umm umm!! You're just like me! I never wanted to miss a show!" I said, that's right. But little did she know, I didn't want to let HER down. On several occasions a dancer would get sick, call out for a show and Debbie would come to me to dance with her partner or to fill in during a section. Debbie knew my name! I even found out that her husband Norm knew my name too. Let me explain. Because Vivian and I were in the same section and always rehearsing together, she became like a little sister to me. There was an event that was taking place at a club near where we were staying and Vivian asked me if I could take her. I told her she had to ask her parents and if they were okay with it I would take her. She told me they gave her permission, we went and she had a good time. The next day Debbie thanked me for taking her and said that when Vivian called to ask her if she could go, Debbie mentioned it to Norman and he asked "Who's she going with?!" and Debbie said "with Donnese". She said Norm then said, "Oh okay, yeah. She can go with Donnese." I was so surprised, happy and honored!

Check back next week when I'll talk about having to change my focus!

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