On Wednesday afternoon, Debbie Allen hosted a free dance class on Instagram live for over 35,000 people. As Allen mentioned during the live stream, the class was a chance to “give back to the world and get those bodies moving,” while participants were largely self-isolating. The iconic choreographer, dancer, producer, director, and actor also gave a special shout-out to the kids who were out of school, noting that her routine would simple enough for them to follow along, as seemingly the whole world figures out how to get in their workouts without encountering teeming masses of infection.
But for me this class wasn’t just a few minutes of exercise, it was the chance to achieve the unachievable: I have always wanted to be a dancer worthy of being yelled at by Debbie Allen, a dream that first took hold in the early 2000s when I saw a video of Allen’s seminal speech from the original Fame. That video launched me into the world of dance films and TV shows—if any level of dancing was involved I was sold—and taught me that every good dance movie includes a scene wherein the sage instructor delivers a life-changing monologue to a group of students. But Debbie Allen’s was and remains the best, and I wanted my own don’t-give-up-on-your-dreams speech to come from the woman who made them seem cool.
So I logged into Allen’s class Wednesday, despite the fact that I have no natural talent, no technical ability, no previous training, and the last time I took a dance class I embarrassed myself so severely that I spent the second hour sitting in a corner willing myself to become invisible. (Anyone who can memorize 16 counts in just a few minutes is a wizard.) For this one shining moment, it didn’t matter that I had two left feet because while Allen’s voice and spirit were in my home, no one could see me. I could do everything wrong—which is absolutely what happened—and none would be the wiser, except for the office worker who had an unfortunate view of my apartment after I forgot to lower one of the blinds in my living room. I’m sorry to that man.
Allen’s class began with a very long warm-up, only I didn’t know it was a warm-up, and for those few minutes, I fooled myself into thinking I could totally keep up with this woman. The warm-up involved very dramatic neck rolls, some precise arm swinging, and hip swings to get the joints loose. I was fine when we were doing the Bring-It-Around-Town, a great hip rotation made famous by Spongebob, but I lost my footing when Allen decided it was time to do actual steps.
Things went downhill pretty quickly. The steps themselves were tailored so children could follow, and yet something as simple as reaching a hand back while reaching the opposite foot back at the same time took me about four attempts to get right. Allen then upgraded the choreography to turns.“Step, touch, step-touch, and turn. Pick up those feet, I can see you,” she yelled. My feet were not picked up.
After Allen chided the class to really go for it, I really went for it on a “lasso turn” and almost knocked over my fancy Walmart lamp. I repositioned myself to try the turn again and tripped over my own foot before making it to the portion of the class that involved a lot of body rolls. Debbie Allen is 70-years-old and she is body-rolling like Cardi B. My rolls were—well, they were rolls in the technical sense of the term but stylistically, there was not much there. Instead of looking sexy, which I was really trying to do, I bore an uncanny resemblance to those inflatable dancing tubes at car dealerships. The true low point of the class for me came when Allen said, “Now we’re going to put it all together,” to which I told my screen, “What all together, Deborah?”
She asked us to put together each move she’d shown since the top of the hour and do them back to back on tempo. She lost me at “on tempo,” but the steps were really simple. Reach up and back twice on each side, step-touch, step touch, to the left and then the right with some arm flairs, then lasso turns back and forth. Body rolls sprinkled throughout. I gave up after I ruined the second step-touch set and just started doing a basic salsa step to whatever music was playing. A friend of mine also took the class and while I was short of breath from turning, he found it too simple and got bored. Show-off.
The class lasted about 45 minutes, with only a single break after the first half-hour when all the music coming from Allen’s phone stopped as someone was calling her. She ignored it and came back into the frame and said, “Don’t call me right now. I’m dancing with the world!” Allen plans to dance with the world one more time on Friday at 2 p.m. EST, in a class specifically targeted to 3- to 7-year-olds, with a focus on ballet and African dance. I will most likely join again in hopes that she will sense I’ve been practicing that lasso turn and pray that I can keep up with the 7-year-olds of Instagram.