This year, the 12 Days of Christmas is getting a special TEENPLICITY twist – 12 Days of TEENPLICITY! From Saturday, December 12th through Wednesday, December 23rd, we will be posting a new holiday-themed feature each day! Including interviews with this season’s merriest entertainers as well as tips for the best holiday treats, we hope this celebration will bring some joy and good cheer to all during a very tough year.
As part of this special event, the 8th Teenpliciday features an exclusive interview with the dancer, choreographer, educator, and director of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Karen McDonald. She talks about the Academy’s beloved Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, the power of dance, encouraging youth, and what we can do to celebrate the holidays safely this year!
Dream and do. That’s the motto for the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. The non-profit started by living legend Debbie Allen (whose influence has spanned across dancing, acting, directing, producing, choreographing, singing/songwriting) was made in 2000 with the goal of creating a space for youth to engage in and study dance and theater.
The new documentary Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker on Netflix tells the story of how the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (referred to as DADA) came to be based on Ms. Allen’s experience growing up having a career as a Black girl in the industry in spite of microaggressions from instructors and realizing she had the platform to make an inclusive dance space. The Academy’s Director, Karen McDonald, has worked with Ms. Allen on DADA since the doors first opened originally as the Dean.
Ms. McDonald has been dancing since she was 11-years-old. She was introverted as a child, but dance is where she found a space to break out of her shell through creativity and confidence. It’s something she’s passionate about and when I talk to her over the phone one December afternoon, you can hear just how much she lights up talking about the craft. “I know what it did for me as a child, I was extremely introverted growing up but through dance, I discovered a whole new world about myself. I got to travel all over the world as a dancer, as a choreographer, as a model, as an actress, and I just know that had I not been exposed to the arts at a young age, my life would have been very different,” she tells me.
Within her fulfilling career so far, Ms. McDonald has worked on Broadway in productions of The Wiz, Purlie, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. She’s choreographed projects, worked as an assistant director on others and has appeared on stage with the likes of game-changing artists such as Janet and Michael Jackson, Beyonce, and Dianne Reeves. She’s also taught for over 40 years paying it forward for all of the mentors who got her to where she is.
“It’s important for me [that] whenever I do have a platform to talk about it, I want to talk about it in a way that people realize that it’s not just a hobby, it’s something that is necessary. The arts are necessary,” Ms. McDonald stresses. “So whenever we have an opportunity to fight for the arts in public schools, private schools, parks and recreation, any place where we can aid in bringing the arts to young people, we should get involved.”
Being there since day one, Ms. McDonald has been able to see the impact of DADA since the very beginning as well as be constantly reminded what dance can do for so many people. “When the school opened, it was a pretty big thing in Los Angeles. The thing that always made the Debbie Allen Dance Academy different and unique is the programming and the number of disciplines we offer.” At DADA, every style of dance holds value. Students can and are encouraged to learn multiple dance forms ranging from African to tap to ballet to hip hop to Latin to musical theatre and that barely covers the surface. “Because we offer so many disciplines, even when we opened, we opened as a place where dancers could come and study and train and be well-rounded in their artform. Watching it grow over the years, those multitudes of art forms have been a great advantage to what it is we do.”
She notes that it’s common for dancers to join the school as young as four or five and the staff gets to watch the dancers grow up through high school while being a part of DADA’s many programs. “Students come out and they are well-rounded dancers and they are scholars as well because Ms. Allen has always believed in students’ education. If I were to look at what I’m seeing from the beginning of the school to now, the well-rounded student [is also] doing really well in school. Students have been tracked and we find that sometimes students will come in maybe with a C average or B average but with being exposed to the arts and the discipline of the arts, that carries over to their academics and their school work. So we’ve seen a lot of students’ grades actually go up since they’ve been training at the academy.”
So whenever we have an opportunity to fight for the arts in public schools, private schools, parks and recreation, any place where we can aid in bringing the arts to young people, we should get involved
Ms. McDonald stresses the importance of discipline and how it’s something the students find themselves developing and learning while there, but not just when it comes to perfecting their dance skills. The typical schedule of one of the students in the academy includes talking up to 10, 12, or even 15 classes a week on top of keeping up with their schoolwork and their home responsibilities. This means that time management is a necessity. “[This] teaches them responsibility, that if they have something that they love that is an extracurricular activity, they have to organize their life in a way so that activity fits into their daily life,” she says.
When it comes to developing a program as intricate as DADA with the intention of prioritizing and uplifting youth, Ms. McDonald explains that the way to guide that intention is through dance. “In our program, the main thing is, of course, that we’re studying dance technique. That’s physical, that mental, and that’s spiritual. The other thing that we offer is the ability for students to have a performance experience so we usually have two recitals a year.”
She mentions the beloved annual Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, as well as the Academy’s RISE program, a musical theater program that offers students the opportunity to train in dance, performance, acting, and voice. “Students get an opportunity to perform on stage which helps them to tap into their imagination and their creativity. Students fall in love with the dance in a way that some of them decide that they want to be professional dancers.” DADA’s current roster and alumni include people performers who have made it to Broadway, film, and television and the faculty make an effort to offer the students as many opportunities as possible including inviting industry people to see the students perform in a showcase at the end of every RISE semester to much success.
DADA also gives the students an opportunity to go on field trips all over the world including the Kennedy Center, the country of Oman, and Cuba in order to perform. “Our students have not only been professional dancers, but our students have been dancing doctors, dancing lawyers, students who’ve started their own nonprofit organization. So through the opening of their imagination and their creativity along with their academics and their extreme artistic talent, we’re basically showing dancers that they have the opportunity to do anything that they like,” she shares.
She also gives credit to the students getting to see and work with Debbie Allen as she continues expanding on the multitudes of her career. “Having that exposure to Ms. Allen and seeing all the incredible things she’s done, not to mention the fact that she’s a social activist,” Ms. McDonald begins listing a few of the impressive things on Ms. Allen’s astounding resume. And while getting to work alongside someone that has choreographed the Academy Awards 10 times is a flex, she notes that something that really makes DADA a special place to be a part of is the number of outreach programs they do. DADA holds programs for senior citizens, for battered women and children, they offer free lecture demonstrations in schools to open the doors to students who wouldn’t have known otherwise, a program for cancer patients and those in remission, as well as bringing the programs to schools to teach students in their own environment. Along with various other programs, DADA also offers scholarships for students from families who are low income so they can afford to attend.
As already discussed, Ms. Allen and Ms. McDonald both heavily value the arts and education very much and understand the ways in which the two influence one another. During their annual fundraiser/performance of the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, for example, 1800 students get to see the show for the discounted price of $5. A cast of over 200, the classic performance has been going on since 2008 with the cast doing eight shows a week for one week every December.
“Everyone knows the story of The Nutcracker. So what Ms. Allen did is called an adaptation where she rewrites the story for modern times,” Ms. McDonald begins about the show. “So, it’s the story of–in the original, it’s Clara–in our Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, it’s Kara. She has a big Christmas party and her and her brother have a fight and she got a nutcracker as a present and he breaks her nutcracker and she falls asleep. But, she has these incredible dreams so the nutcracker comes to life and they take Kara through all these incredible countries.” Kara travels through China, Egypt, Fairy Land, Birdland, the Rainforest, Bollywood, the North Pole, and more. While the brainchild of Ms. Allen, Hot Chocolate Nutcracker remains a living collaboration. “Two years ago, we had Savion Glover come in and he put a big tap number in the show and it’s like a human train that travels us through the different places,” Ms. McDonald shares. It’s something that can be seen in the DADA documentary as well. When it comes to the Bollywood number, one of the most intricate in the show, Ms. Allen brought in a choreographer from India to trach traditional Bollywood dancing so the students could respectfully and accurately dance the art form they’re performing.
“We have roller skaters, we have stilt walkers, so it’s this phenomenal fantasy created for every age member of a family. It’s a beautiful thing for little children and also for teenagers, adults, and grandparents,” she muses about the Christmas staple that has found people coming from all over either to see the show or to be in the show. The dance is the driving part, but the comedy and the history of these different countries are also included as significant pieces of making the show special.
Again, the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is a living collaboration. This means that even after 12 years, there is no one solidified version of the show, it can be ever-changing. One of the ways is the newly added tap number mentioned earlier, another is the decision to change the countries Kara travels to every year, adding different numbers and swapping numbers in and out. For example, originally Kara would travel to Russia and now she visits the North Pole. In terms of dance styles, Latin fusion has also been added. “We change it up as we go to a new country, we expose more people to the history of what that country is. And we’re always auditioning. People can audition from all around the world. We start rehearsals in September and we rehearse all the way to the beginning of December. The show is at the beginning of December so we have people that actually fly in from other cities on the weekend to rehearse with us. We’ve had people that have done the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker over the years from different cities who eventually moved here and joined the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, so it’s quite an undertaking and it’s ever-evolving.”
Characters such as the rat narrators are often switched out with different professional actors and roles such as the Fairy Queen and the Prince are played by professional dancers including DADA alumni.
“I think the most fulfilling part is to see where the show evolves in September from the first day of rehearsal,” she says explaining that when rehearsals first begin for the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, they rehearse only on the weekends until November when the rehearsal schedule then adds the weekdays as well. Rehearsing can often look like different parts melding together. The different performances will be rehearsing in the different studios of the academy with a lot of the dancers being in multiple parts of the show. “When it all comes together, to know the kind of dedication and fortitude [from the dancers] and dedication from the choreographers and the teachers that have gone into the production and see it come into fruition, that performance I think is the most gratifying. I think that students mature in that short period of time in a way that they never imagine. The parents see a difference in the children in the way that they take ownership of something that they love, of being more responsible at home.” It’s something that the DADA staff and faculty make sure to instill while the students are rehearsing–that this is their dream and their lives for the taking. It’s what Ms. McDonald describes as teaching them to become “great and effective adults.” Something she compliments Ms. Allen as being beautiful at. “It’s what we call tough love, but the keyword is love. So as hard as we are on the students, the students know that Ms. Allen and all of our staff and choreographers really love them and that we are pushing them so that they can be their best so that they can find something within their heart space that maybe they hadn’t even discovered was there until they did the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
When it all comes together, to know the kind of dedication and fortitude [from the dancers] and dedication from the choreographers and the teachers that have gone into the production and see it come into fruition, that performance I think is the most gratifying.
It’s no argument that The Nutcracker is itself not only a Christmas classic but a classic overall. It first premiered in 1892 as a two-act ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and scored by Tchaikovsky. It’s performed every year at Christmastime and has found its way into multiple adaptations while the music has spread to different projects as well. But, even with it being as beloved as it is, it still carries flaws and as one of the standards in ballet, has been used to exclude many dancers or limit what a dancer should look like. This is why it was important to Ms. Allen to rewrite and reimagine The Nutcracker ballet.
“I think that [the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker] is now a Christmas classic that we can embrace because it is multicultural. Typically in the original Nutcracker, young people don’t always see people that look like them, but in the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, because it is so culturally diverse, everyone sees someone in the performance that looks like them and I think that’s been a Godsend for young people. When a young person watches the show, Ms. McDonald explains, they get to see these performers of different genders, races, and sizes and taking on all these forms of dance and as such, know there’s space for them as well. “I think that’s been a huge force and I think one of the reasons that Ms. Allen created the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker because she herself always says how much she loved the music of Tchaikovsky and how she remembered going to see the Nutcracker for years when she was studying and training as a ballerina but she never saw people that actually had her image. So that was another reason that really propelled her to create a classic Christmas story, but one that is more universal and one that is inclusive of everyone on the planet.”
Usually, when someone refers to something being universal, especially in the arts, they tend to attempt to try one face. They to find one image and pass it off as something everyone can relate to and often, it excludes more than it expands. But, as Ms. McDonald has explained, the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker shows that what universal means is that there is no one thing that. To be universal is to be and showcase multiple things.
In Dance Dreams on Netflix, we see the dancers and the staff preparing for their performance of the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker including the moments when they’re tired, when they’re messing up, and when they’re shining. It’s inspiring and sure to influence a few viewers to give dance a try or keep going. “I want to invite them into an art form that can be for a lifetime,” Ms. McDonald begins when I ask her what she’d like to say to those that may feel driven. “So typically, sometimes people only think of dance in a very small age range, and of course, it is very good to train when you’re younger, but once you enter the world of dance, you can actually stay for a lifetime. So it doesn’t mean once you’re 30 years old or 40 years old that you have to hang up your shoes or your career has ended. There are people on Broadway of all ages, dance is not something that’s just for children. So I’d like for them to know that going in and be able to inspire others. It’s all genders, it’s all nationalities, it’s all ages, it is all shapes, and all sizes, everybody is welcome to this artform. No one is excluded from it,” she stresses making sure the statement holds the weight it deserves.
“In the word ‘heart,’ H-E-A-R-T, is contained naturally the word, ‘art.’ So, H-E is the first part and then the last part of the word ‘heart’ is A-R-T which spells art. So I say anyone that has heart or has a heart, and that’s every human being, naturally has art in their body and in their soul and it is the Debbie Allen Dance Academy that enjoys bringing that out in students and people all around the world.” Currently, due to Covid, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy has gone virtual which has given them the chance to let their message spread even farther. People from all over the world can attend classes including a free class every Wednesday on their Instagram. “It’s just very powerful,” Ms. McDonald says about the reach the virtual program has had. “And that’s something that we didn’t have 20 years ago that we now have in the year 2020. So that’s one of the ways that the school has changed, we are now global and virtual as well.”
[Dance is] all genders, it’s all nationalities, it’s all ages, it is all shapes, and all sizes, everybody is welcome to this artform. No one is excluded from it.
As we begin to wrap up, one of the final questions I have for Ms. McDonald is about how she’s personally celebrating and viewing the holidays this year compared to years before and with her answer, she reminds us that one of the true meanings of the holiday season is how we need to be looking out for each other. “[I’m viewing it] differently in the sense that we have to do what is physically safe for ourselves and our families, but the love for our families and the appreciation and the gratitude for what we have even during this time does not change. So we hope that people will have incredible Christmas and New Years with their families on Zoom from all the different places in the country. We hope that people will still have good food and healthy food and nourish each other spiritually,” she says.
“We can still mail Christmas cards, we can still write letters, we can still reach out and communicate, we can still feed the homeless, we can still donate our clothes to different organizations to those who are less fortunate than us. We can contribute and be responsible for different organizations such as Black Lives Matter. We can just get involved,” Ms. McDonald puts it simply. “We can support our new administration and be about the business of healing the planet and bringing America back to what we know it can be and including other countries and people from around the world in a kind of unity that has never existed before.”
It’s that unity and love and a demand for a better and respecting place that drives Ms. McDonald and her work. When we officially close our interview, when asked if there’s any final things she wants to make sure is included, she stresses the motto of the school and these two things: “On behalf of Ms. Allen and myself, we hope that people will engage in the arts because the arts absolutely brings joy” and finally, “Thank you to the incredible and phenomenal staff and faculty at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.”
You can stay up to date on all things Karen McDonald by following her Instagram account.
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is available to stream now on Netflix.
(photo cred: Gregory Bartning for the book BEAUTY IS EXPERIENCE: DANCING 50 AND BEYOND available here)