'Tiny Pretty Things' Star Kylie Jefferson on How Debbie Allen Changed Her Life (Exclusive)

Tiny Pretty Things
Sophie Girard/Netflix

The dancer opens up to ET about Allen's lasting effect on her career and the moment she realized the choreographer's legendary status.

For Black History Month, ET is honoring legends through the eyes of legends in the making.

There's one person Kylie Jefferson credits for helping shape her into the woman she is today: legendary dancer, choreographer and producer Debbie Allen. At just six years old, Jefferson -- who made her onscreen debut in Netflix's ballet drama Tiny Pretty Things and is a featured dancer in Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker -- was the youngest student to be accepted into the famed Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, where she trained under the tutelage and mentorship of Allen as a young, aspiring ballet dancer. The years of blood, sweat and tears, with Allen's support and guidance, was key in Jefferson's growth as a Black woman looking to make her mark.

"I don't know anyone who works harder than her. Learning from her, she's going to require that of me," the 26-year-old dancer told ET. "You have a second mom with her. Once you become a part of her family, she never lets you go. So me being a part of her world since I was six years old, I remember being around that age and just being a child in between rehearsals or classes doing little kid stuff. I would randomly hear her come into the room, like, 'Where's Kylie Jefferson?' I'm like, 'What's this woman want with me?' because I'm seven years old, not really knowing who she is and what she means to the world. But as I get older and the more I learn from her, it makes me a lot more appreciative of my journey and the fact that I've had such close guidance with someone that actually cares to be a part of it."

It wasn't until Jefferson was a teenager, around 16 or 17 she says, when it clicked that Allen was a living legend. "She started telling me she knew Snoop Dogg and Chris Brown and Usher, when I started to realize that she really knew those people and she was a part of their world." It was around that time the ballerina started piecing together the impact Allen has had on Hollywood as a whole, recalling a trip to New York City they had taken when she was eight years old. "We were in traffic, of course, and she looked out the window. She's like, 'Is that Usher?' We're in a whole different car. She has them pull over and we're talking to Usher on the side of the street in New York City!" Jefferson reminisced. "This is a random life [moment] for her. I really started to connect those kinds of memories. I was like, 'Yeah, she is the GOAT.'"

Jefferson, who has since dipped her toe as a choreographer (most notably for Schoolboy Q's "Chopstix" music video), praised Allen's ability to "create a perception that's always helping her rise above" -- something she's aiming for herself as her own career in dance and acting blossoms. "She's been through a lot of stuff. She always has a way to find a way to receive that experience in a way that doesn't defeat her. She is undefeatable," she said matter-of-factly. "I've never seen anyone tell her 'no' and get away with it."

Allen was an honorary speaker at Jefferson's college graduation at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in 2016, where Jefferson received a degree in contemporary dance and Allen an honorary degree. It remains one of Jefferson's most memorable life moments, having Allen there to celebrate in her achievements as she began a new chapter in her life. "That was a really great moment and it established a new tone in our relationship as I went on to the professional world, and I kind of like to continue on that -- I don't want to say tradition yet -- but in my mind I would like to continue on, especially with Tiny Pretty Things, just to see her be so proud."

Other Black legends Jefferson has looked up to for inspiration, aside from Allen, include Ice Cube, Queen Latifah and Rashida Jones, partly due to their ability to evolve and adapt over time. "Ice Cube and Queen Latifah, those are two people that really stick out to me because they've gotten so great with time. All across the board with the projects that they do, the way they carry themselves, the way that they speak, the way that they move through their lives," she marveled, adding that Jones is "so freaking cool to me."

Though Jefferson grew up in the ballet world and currently leads a show about it (the aforementioned Tiny Pretty Things), she was candid about the underrepresentation of Black dancers in classical ballet and dance. But that's a symptom of the problem, she points out.

"I do think Black dancers are underrepresented in the classical dance world, but we're also not really there. Only a few of us continue on for various reasons," she said, referring to the intensity of the training process and financial burden it can take. "Something that was important to me was the fact that I realized it takes a lot of time. You put a lot of time into this craft, so I always wanted to find ways of making it fun for me so that I can bear being in rehearsal. I would incorporate whatever I loved about my body or whatever I was struggling with, I would take my insecurities and I'm like, 'You know what? This is only an insecurity because I'm a classical dancer. If I worked in corporate and my body type wasn't that big of a deal, I would love my body.' I would take those things and I would be like, 'Well, let's just add a little bit more booty and just make it more Kylie.' That's what I always do with anything, especially when it requires so much of me because I have to put my all into it and try to figure out some way to do it."

In Tiny Pretty Things, adapted from the novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Jefferson plays Neveah Stroyer, a talented ballet dancer from Inglewood, California, who is offered a scholarship slot at the prestigious Archer School of Ballet after a student takes a violent fall and slips into a coma. Her transition to the fictional Chicago school is rocky at first, but she gradually warms her way in through her scorching talent and no-B.S. meter. Her character, unlike many of the other students at the ballet school, comes from a broken family (her mother is in jail) with little to no funds to support her and her brother. Jefferson noted that while it may be viewed as an archetypal construct for how a Black family is portrayed on TV, "it's also a reality," she said.

"But it's not the only reality, you know what I mean?" Jefferson clarified. "There's different levels with that. There are different reasons that people don't have a mother, father and all their siblings in one household, but it's definitely something [where] representation is important. In order for the generations to come -- some of these changes to be made within these households -- [you] have to have the mirror put back on us sometimes. I think that's really important, but also to make sure that we are shedding light on the middle class, full families. That we're shedding light on all levels of these conversations, these realities that people, especially African Americans live."

Kylie Jefferson rehearses as Debbie Allen looks on in Netflix's 'Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.' - Netflix

"Like Neveah with the police officer," she continued, referencing a difficult scene she filmed on Tiny Pretty Things. "That's a specific tone there because that's a very interesting relationship. Sometimes I'm like, 'I'm sure it was really hard to even be in that position as Kylie sometimes.' I remember when we were filming at the police department, they created the set for us for the Chicago Police Department. But I remember just walking in on set and seeing the words, 'Chicago Police Department' and feeling as a Black woman, uncomfortable. I looked around the room and I noticed that it didn't make anyone else uncomfortable because... this isn't their life experience."

Although it's unclear at the moment whether Tiny Pretty Things will return for a second season, Jefferson remains hopeful that Neveah's story isn't over yet -- plus, she's as desperate as viewers are to uncover the new mystery introduced in the finale, which saw toxic choreographer Ramon lying in a pool of his own blood from a a fatal stab wound. "It really does leave off with some cliffhangers. I mean, I want answers myself!" Jefferson enthused. "I want to know who killed Ramon. I hope whoever killed him didn't do it alone because he had it out for so many people. But I hope whoever has to take the fall, goes down with a friend."

As Jefferson continues on in her career, she keeps Allen's wisdom instilled in her as she inspires a new generation of young Black dancers. One of her biggest desires for the future is to step in Allen's literal footsteps, working with other dancers and stepping behind the scenes to choreograph and shape routines highlighting Black talent. Her dream collaborations? Burna Boy and Doja Cat, of course. Jefferson's time choreographing Schoolboy Q's "Chopstix" video, which also features friend and fellow dancer Taylour Paige, changed the game for her. "I was able to ask my old dance friends I grew up dancing with to put on their pointe shoes and to hit a step for me because it was kind of sad how hard it was for me to find Black girls who could do ballet in Los Angeles. But I didn't have time to be sad about that," she recalled. "My friends showed up for me and it was such a great process. I surprised myself for my first time choreographing. It was just such a great day." 

Tiny Pretty Things and Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker are streaming now on Netflix. 

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