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."