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Sweat, but the good kind

A look into the pre-COVID-19 word of Karen McDonald, director of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy

The stench of hard work floats through the air as you open the doors. Loud radio hits, contrasted with the ever classical Swan Lake, penetrates your ears. Dancers madly dash around you and you are immediately swallowed into the world of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

The current director of the DADA is Karen McDonald. McDonald enters a room and her energy possesses an indescribable strength. Her students leave her classes soaked in sweat and grinning. 

At 60 years old Mcdonald doesn’t look a day over 45. She has been a vegetarian for 42 years. Being the busy woman she is, McDonald swears by her morning routine.

“I meditate every day twice a day,” says McDonald. “I use a chi machine that energizes your body.”   

Mcdonald splits her time between colleges and the DADA. Her routine is different every day.

“On some days I go to the college, the high school, the studio and others I go to high school and the studio.” McDonald shares. “I always end up at the studio every day.”

The Debbie Allen Dance Academy has cultivated talent since its doors first opened in 2000. The studio was opened by one of the major forces in the dance world: Debbie Allen. Allen’s work in the entertainment community has earned her many accolades including a Golden Globe and a few Emmys. 

Tucked away between Hotville Chicken and the Taco Bell at the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw mall, DADA is a colorful haven for their students. 

“My favorite part of working with students in L.A. is giving back to the community” McDonald says. “I love teaching, I love seeing someone come in at 4 o’clock and be completely transformed by 5:30. I like to see young people get to know themselves through the arts.”

Walking into the studio there is a burst of blue and orange. Dancers flit and flutter through the hallways in brightly colored leotards. 

Different from the stereotypical competitive dance scene, where silent students typically stretch privately, the DADA students bustle noisily through the studio. They chat about dance, music and even Tik Toks. 

The whirlwind comes to a stop when Karen McDonald enters the space. The woman’s presence is powerful among her dancers. 

“My favorite part of being a student here is [that] the teachers are awesome,” says 11-year-old DADA student Cadence Murray. “They work you to the bone, but it’s a good thing.” 

Murray is a part of the Red Birds group at DADA. As a Red Bird Murray, was handpicked by Debbie Allen, she is expected to attend six to eight classes a week. 

“It was my teachers that thoroughly inspired me,” Mcdonald says. “They pushed me and encouraged me, taught us life skills.” 

McDonald began dancing at 11. After watching a performance of renowned dance company Alvin Ailey when she was 13, she knew she was going to be a dancer for the rest of her life. She moved to New York after high school and started working professionally. 

McDonald’s career has been magnificent. She worked with Michael Jackson on the iconic Thriller video and was handpicked by Beyonce to be the face of the Ivy Park 2017-2018 campaign

“I had no idea when the campaign came out it would be such a big campaign” chuckles McDonald. “I’ve gotten so many jobs from that one campaign.”

During her years as a professional dancer, McDonald always vowed to give back to young dancers what she was given from her teachers. 

Day to day work for McDonald includes carrying out the wishes of artistic director Debbie Allen. Planning performances, lecture demonstrations, outreach programs and teaching are a couple of the other responsibilities of McDonald.

“My favorite performance has been when we went to the White House to perform for Michelle Obama during Black History Month.” says 17-year-old DADA dancer Kendall Dennis. “[McDonald] definitely pushes you..she is always on your case, especially if you are one of her top students.”

McDonald has made a priority of keeping in touch with her students after they move on from the DADA. She and her alumni have a group chat that they update every Tuesday.

“We call it ‘Super Tuesday,’” McDonald says with a glint in her eye. “Everybody just checks in and we talk about what we should be thinking about to expand and move our art along.”

When you leave McDonald a voicemail, her character shines through with the final sentence of her message. 

“Rember, be kind to someone…kindness always comes back to you” 

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Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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