Cleo Parker at age 21

Ed Klamm, Courtesy CPRD

Cleo Parker Robinson Knows Firsthand That Dance Can Heal

Growing up, Cleo Parker Robinson watched her black father and white mother, driving with four children, get regularly stopped by police. The painful racism of the time made her mute from anxiety and at 10, she landed in the hospital with kidney and heart trouble. Her parents both encouraged her to dance, to act, to play music, and she launched her own dance school and company at just 21.

As Denver's Cleo Parker Robinson Dance celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, for her, dance is about creating the world we want to live in. "To live it, you've gotta dance it!" she says.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about the spirituality of dance, her most fulfilling projects and what's changed in the 50 years since she began her company.

Cleo Parker Robinson (center) and her dancers

Jerry Metellus, Courtesy CPRD

How she started down this path:

"My parents gave me the courage to do things that had not been done before. We made our home a joyful and sacred space, a place to laugh during a time of hatred. Racism creates illness. The mind-body-spirit connection can be disrupted through segregation."

"While doctors said I would be bedridden for life, I began to play, then move, to music. I started teaching other children, and realized I was speaking again!"

"I became a modern dancer who wanted to change the way people saw black women, to reeducate them while educating myself."

Her biggest influences:

"Eleo Pomare, Katherine Dunham and Donald McKayle influenced me the most. Eleo set his choreography on my body, affecting how I would choreograph later. Katherine Dunham believed in the rhythm of life through dance. Donald McKayle had a sense of humanity while he worked, and supported me as a wild black woman in the arts. We have more of his works than any other company, with maybe more to come."

What she looks for in dancers:

"When choosing dancers, I have to be interested in them as human beings. They need to have the courage to find their own voice, to be naked."

Robinson's The MOVE/ment

Stan Obert, Courtesy CPRD

One of her most fulfilling projects:

"A psychology professor and I started Project Self-Discovery more than 20 years ago, bringing diverse gangs together around science, music and dance. We held classes for them in our building, where they saw children being valued by their parents and dance teachers. Minds changed. That program received an award at the White House, and continues internationally."

What's changed since she started her company 50 years ago:

"My company's 50th anniversary is being celebrated this year. Long ago, both jobs and respect were hard to come by for choreographers and dancers. This was especially true for women of color, as well as for modern dance. Respect went more easily towards ballet. I wanted to balance all my interests, to be in Denver and the world at the same time. When you find your true voice, the funding will follow."

Her goal as a dancemaker:

"There is a spiritual aspect of dance. How do we get to that higher place together? How are both minds and spirits fed?

"I created a seasonal celebration, called Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum. In this timeless journey into world cultures, there is no separation between the dancers and the audience. Ancestors are invited to attend. Young children participate onstage as stories unfold. We are all part of this world we envision, and we all create it together."

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J. Alice Jackson, Courtesy CHRP

Chicago Human Rhythm Project's Rhythm World Finally Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary

What happens when a dance festival is set to celebrate a landmark anniversary, but a global pandemic has other plans?

Chicago's Rhythm World, the oldest tap festival in the country, should have enjoyed its 30th iteration last summer. Disrupted by COVID-19, it was quickly reimagined for virtual spaces with a blend of recorded and livestreamed classes. So as not to let the pandemic rob the festival of its well-deserved fanfare, it was cleverly marketed as Rhythm World 29.5.

Fortunately, the festival returns in full force this year, officially marking three decades of rhythm-making with three weeks of events, July 26 to August 15. As usual, the festival will be filled with a variety of master classes, intensive courses and performances, as well as a teacher certification program and the Youth Tap Ensemble Conference. At the helm is Chicago native Jumaane Taylor, the newly appointed festival director, who has curated both the education and performance programs. Taylor, an accomplished choreographer, came to the festival first as a young student and later as part of its faculty.

July 2021