When we think of Debbie Allen, we see a force, a powerhouse in the industry who has managed to stay not only active but relevant for decades. Allen strikes us as spry, youthful and dynamic. So you might be surprised to learn that earlier this year she was diagnosed pre-diabetic. After she learned this, Allen partnered with the National Kidney Foundation to raise awareness about the link between type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease. In our interview, we spoke about how diabetes had ravaged her family, how she’s changed her lifestyle since learning she was pre-diabetic, taking time to prioritize herself in the midst of taking care of a family and her still thriving career.
MadameNoire: I remember in another interview of yours you spoke about your father, who lived with diabetes, encouraging you to keep dancing and being active because it would help to keep you from dealing with the disease like he had to. You’ve been active for decades. Given that, were you surprised when you were diagnosed pre-diabetic?
Debbie Allen: Actually, I was looking for it. I’ve been looking for it my whole adult life. When I gave birth I was looking for gestational diabetes. That’s when it might come because of your weight gain. And now, at this point in my life—because there was a time when I was dancing 7-8 hours a day. That is not my life right now. I’m directing, administering, I’m looking at film. I’m teaching my live IG class. But my physical life has changed a bit because of my career.
So when I found out late, this past summer, it was not a surprise. I was kind of expecting that it might happen. And when it did, it just set off an alarm that I had to get serious and really pay attention. So that’s what I’ve done. And this campaign actually helped me and taught me, which is why I think it’s important for me to be this person right now, that brings this information because people will listen.
Type 2 diabetes ravaged my whole family. It is ravaging the Black community. COVID is the headline and then they talk about how people with type 2 diabetes are very vulnerable to this virus. The whole COVID situation has just shined a light on the medical care disparity in our community. So I think it’s a time for us to, yes pay attention to that but let’s look at the whole picture.
The fact that there are 37 million adult Americans walking around with chronic kidney disease and don’t even know it. Type 2 diabetes is a huge risk factor for chronic kidney disease. And a simple urine test or simple blood test could tell you everything. So go and ask your healthcare provider to give you that UACR urine test. Or that EGFR blood test. Go to the website MinuteForYourKidneys.org and get this vital information.
Information is power and right now, we have gone through so many months of misinformation and no leadership. Now, things are changing but everybody has to take it on themselves.
I think women play a very special role because we’re the one that set the table. What are they eating? We’re the ones that set the activity. There’s not so much activity with COVID so how do you do it? What do you do to get that sweat in, other than taking my Instagram class on Wednesdays. Do you ride a stationary bike? Do you go and take a walk? Do you go up and down the steps in your house twenty times? There’s a lot of things you can do but you have to do something.
MadameNoire: Tell us why it was so important for you to partner with the National Kidney Foundation.
Debbie Allen: Well, my dad was the heartbeat of my life, he and my mom. Daddy died and it just was heartbreaking. It could be like it was yesterday. It was 36 years ago. And he was in the medical profession but he had complications of type 2 diabetes. My grand—I grandfather, Papa Lloyd, was a conductor on a train. He died at the train station one day, complications of type 2 diabetes. My aunt Ceola—I was at the family farm in Louisiana, she died in my arms. Complications of type 2 diabetes.
I watched family members giving themselves that injection. It was a part of the daily routine. So it’s personal for me. It’s in my DNA and it’s in my children’s DNA, so they need to know. I believe, again, that information is power.
So if we all know that this train is coming and it’s going to go through your house, you can get out in time. If you don’t know then that’s something else. But you can go and find out about the train. You can take these tests. You can get proactive about your healthcare and do something about it. So that’s why I joined. It’s important to me.
MadameNoire: Since you learned of your diagnosis, what measures have you taken to change your lifestyle?
Debbie Allen: I went and took that urine test and I don’t have the chronic kidney disease, which is great. I told my whole family. I set the tone about what we eat. Immediately, everybody was like okay. I said, ‘Let’s bring down the fats. Let’s bring down the cholesterol. Let’s bring down the salt. Let’s just start to eat more healthy like we know.’
Corona did one thing for us, it made us come together as a family and try to find joy. So I was just cooking my butt off, chile. I was cooking and making the best cocktails. Everyday. And then it was like, ‘Okay, let’s calm this down.’ You just can’t have that every day. I mean, I make the best fried chicken but I can’t eat that everyday. So it’s more broiled food, fresh live foods that are uncooked. My husband brings me my vitamins everyday because I’m so busy and I don’t think about myself. And that’s been my biggest problem. I’m always last on my list. I have two grandchildren now and my husband, my son, my daughter and I have all these beautiful young people that I’m mentoring. I have elders and cancer patients. I have a lot of people that I touch.
And here at “Grey’s Anatomy,” I have a whole family here. So, I have got to remember to take a little Debbie time and go and take care of me. If people visit MinuteForYourKidneys.org, that’s taking a moment for yourself.
That’s something that I’m trying to do.
MadameNoire: Black women in particular have a problem prioritizing everyone around them and then we don’t think about ourselves until something happens. So how did you come to the conclusion that you need to be further up in the line?
Debbie Allen: Well because I am the center of my family’s life. My daughter, my grandchildren, my son, my husband, my family at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA). Even here at Grey’s Anatomy—the COVID protocols are so intense here. Everybody was looking at me like, ‘Debbie, you can’t go down. You cannot go down!’ I’m like calm down. We’re being safe.
But I am. If I don’t go to the grocery store, we might not have what we need. I still have to do these things. I might be Debbie Allen to the world but I’m Mama and Mrs. Nixon at home. I have certain responsibilities. I’ve been very careful. I started wearing two masks now and the shield.
I’ve been getting my exercise in now. My son went and got me a trainer when I told him about my diagnosis. He said, ‘Mom, you’re not doing enough.’ Twice a week with her, my Instagram class and my own exercises on the weekends. As long as I get in a good 4-5 times a week and eat properly, I think that will help manage my pre diabetic prognosis.
MadameNoire: You’re going to receive the Lifetime Achievement award from the Kennedy Center. What does that mean to you and did you envision yourself in this place when you started out?
Debbie Allen: First of all, I was so overwhelmed and surprised…
Debbie Allen: Totally, I promise you. I just never expected to get this award. I’ve worked with the Kennedy Center for the last 25 years or more. I’ve done so many programs. They call me. And I bring and I do. I’m always there to serve because that is the people’s house. It is our cultural, theatrical house. So when I got the call, I thought I was getting a call for another assignment. So when someone told me, you’ve been unanimously voted to receive this honor, I just was taken aback. It means a lot to me and my whole family. It’s an honor I share with all the people who have mentored me, trained me. From my Howard professors, my teachers in New York, the young people that I work with daily who inspire me to do the work that I do. I share that with all of them. I’ve been blessed to be in situations from “Fame,” to “A Different World” to now “Grey’s Anatomy,” where we change the world with our programming. “A Different World” tripled enrollment in Historically Black College and inspired all young people to go to college.
“Grey’s Anatomy” has helped millions of people with their health and it’s inspired people to get in the medical profession. So I have long had a history of doing work that is significant.
DADA, I’ve trained thousands of young people who are working professionally, not just in dance and creative arts. But they have a sense of themselves and a sense of creativity.
I feel really blessed to do what I do and this award speaks to all of that to me.
I’ve got to write the book.
MadameNoire: Yes! Please, please.
MadameNoire: I’m sure the work you do is fulfilling but it’s work so what keeps you motivated and inspired to even try new things at this point in your career. You really don’t have to. You’ve done enough.
Debbie Allen: I maybe have done enough but I haven’t done everything that I can do and want to do. I want to make Hot Chocolate Nutcracker into a feature film so the world can really see it. I have stories that I’ve been working on for years. You know I produced Amistad with Steven Spielberg, it took me 18 years. But there are other stories now that need to be told.
So what wakes me up is those wonderful young people that are nipping at my heels—‘Ms. Allen, Ms. Allen.’ And I’m paying attention to them and what they’re trying to do and what they could do. I am taking time with them.
I have a lot of things on my plate that are very different. Phylicia [Rashad] and I want to do some stuff together.
MadameNoire: Please! People loved that Instagram Live you both did together. It was so good to see you both.
Debbie Allen: Yeah, we’re going to do it again. We’re going to do it soon.