Netflix’s new family documentary serves up killer dance moves, inspiration and Black excellence—just in time for the holidays.
On Friday, November 27th, Netflix released Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, a documentary centered on the illustrious career of dance icon Debbie Allen and her dance academy’s annual production of the “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
The narrative of the “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is inspired by the classic Nutcracker ballet that almost every professional ballet company performs to sold out audiences during the holidays, but the similarities stop there. This production deviates from the ballet’s traditional Tchaikovsky score and strives to create its own “cultural identity of music,” as Allen says. Many of the songs are sung by cast members, who are mainly children.
While hard-core dance and ballet aficionados will get their fair dose of bourreés and pirouettes in this 80 minute film, the production features a variety of dance styles and cultural influences. Prepare to see hip hop, tap and even bollywood dance performed on the big stage as the main character, Kara, travels to different regions around the globe after her magical nutcracker falls to the ground.
What makes Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker stand out from traditional dance documentaries is that the film serves as a poignant commentary on the exclusivity of the ballet world in relation to socio-economic status, body type and race. Allen reveals her struggles growing up in a segregated Texas, where she wasn’t even allowed to take dance classes until the age of 14 because she was Black. She was later denied acceptance to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts after she was told that she didn’t have the right body for ballet. Allen recalls her mom’s words after that audition at the airport returning home: ”Deborah, you’ve failed.”
Allen may have encountered some failures on her way to success, but she never stopped working. In 1980, Allen received her breakout role as Anita in the Broadway revival of West Side Story, which earned her a Tony nomination. But many of her fans know Allen from playing Lydia Grant in the movie and popular television show Fame, for which she won two Emmy awards for best choreography. Today, she works as an actress, director and executive producer on various TV shows, including ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy since its 12th season.
From the beginning, Allen conceived her dance academy with inclusivity at the forefront: the majority of its students are Black, 75% are on scholarship and all body types are celebrated. Allen says she was inspired to found her own studio in 2000 after a dance teacher yelled at her daughter, telling her that she would never be a professional ballet dancer. Allen repeatedly takes the time to remind her students of their worth. In one powerful moment, Allen stops one of her teenage students leaving the studio and says: “Do you know how beautiful you are? I don’t think you do. You’re so beautiful!”
No doubt, the release of this film is refreshing and timely. During a time in which Broadway shows and live dance productions have come to a halt due to the pandemic, watching Dance Dreams: The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is almost like a visit to the “before times,” in which we could take a seat in a crowded theatre and devote our attention to the magic unfolding on stage. And as we approach the end of a year in which the media has put Black pain on constant display, one can’t help but acknowledge the special nature of centering Black excellence and joy through the art of dance.
Allen gives her students something that goes beyond a basic dance education: the belief that they can do anything that they set their mind to—even in a society that may tell them otherwise. The film closes with the students from Debbie Allen Dance Academy saying what they want to be when they grow up. The answers? “Dancer.” “Choreographer.” “Lawyer.” “Engineer.”
And my personal favorite? “President of the United States.”