An article I wrote for Dandizette Magazine, this one profiles the talented and supremely inspiring Cleo Parker Robinson, a lady who defied her fate and seized her destiny. You can read the original article here!
“We were returning from a basketball game when suddenly a group of white girls started following us. They trapped us and then proceeded to beat us up. They beat us really bad and then threw us into a gutter.”
Slumped in that gutter, her nose bleeding, her hearing almost lost, Cleo Parker Robinson never imagined that one day she would command the respect and admiration of thousands.
“There were hard times and then there were fantastic moments,” says Robinson. “I was born in 1948, right after World War II, and we lived in The Rossonian, which was the only hotel that blacks could stay in. The Rossonian Lounge was to Denver what the Cotton Club in New York was to Harlem. There was a wonderful energy. Great musicians came to the club from all over the world, and I loved the music. I danced to it all the time.”
And yet, it took being nearly bedridden and almost mute before Robinson would choose dance as her destiny.
“We moved to Dallas in 1958, and I hated it,” says Robinson. “There was fear and oppression everywhere, and it made me very ill. I developed nephritis, which led to kidney failure.”
Being of mixed parentage (her mother is white and her father black), it was difficult to find a hospital that would admit her, and the delay resulted in a sudden heart attack. She was only 11.
“Doctors said I would be bedridden for life,” says Robinson. “But I was defiant and refused to listen. And because I was mute, I found that dance was a marvelous way to communicate my emotions and my ideas. I realized I wasn’t in pain when I danced. Dance helped me heal. I knew then that I had found something quite magical.”
Strong and healthy once more, Robinson moved back to Denver and started training formally in dance.
“One day my teacher asked me to take over for two weeks. Shocked, I braced myself to teach, but she didn’t come back for a long time. When she did, I gladly handed back her tapes. But she said, ‘No – they are yours, and from now on this is your class.’”
Just like that, Robinson was a teacher at the age of 15.
But this was only the beginning. Responding to an opening for dance director, she snatched the job in her very first interview. Then came a reality check: The studio was small, the ceilings low and the floor all wrong. Robinson was heartbroken.
“I called my dad and together we set off for the lumber yard,” she says.
Soon the dingy little room had transformed into a dance studio. And one fine morning they opened their doors to Denver. But nobody came.
The first class was empty.
“It was definitely not the beginning we had hoped for. But I started building my audience, just like I had built my studio,” says Robinson. “We targeted high schools. We started charging a quarter because I believe people do not value what is free. And finally people started coming.”
And they haven’t stopped. Today, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is one of the most applauded dance schools in Denver and their performances, held in places as diverse as Turkey, Singapore, Iceland, Rome and more, one of the best.
“Cleo is the best friend you can ever have,” says Rhetta Shead, who has volunteered with the company for over 30 years. “She is the most caring, loving and giving person I know. She has had dinner with presidents and world leaders, but she will still stop and talk to a person on the street just as naturally, offer them her dinner as well. She is one of the most respected choreographers you can find. She literally creates something from nothing.”
Robinson’s skills as the founder, executive artistic director and choreographer have taken her and her ensemble around the globe, but perhaps the most rewarding moments have come right here at home.
The desire to repay the city she loves gave birth to Project Self Discovery, a program that brought art into the lives of at-risk youth in Denver.
“I met a psychologist, Dr. Harvey Milkman, and he invited me to his class to talk about dance. He was very interested in movement, and I was very interested in psychology. So we got together and created a program that would deal with at-risk youth and bring about an understanding of their minds. Denver had a lot of gang activities at that time, and we wanted to provide an alternative to the kids in these gangs. We dealt with Black Panthers, Skinheads, Crips, Bloods, everybody. We taught them music, dance, theatre, painting, everything. We got them to create all kinds of things,” says Robinson.
It was a challenge and one she tackled head on.
“At first they were hesitant,” says Robinson. “But when they did take that leap of faith, they realized that they went into a natural high. They did not needs drugs or alcohol when they were creating. It’s a natural high to push your body to a place beyond what you imagined. They were so surprised of what they were capable of.”
Project Self Discovery ran for 10 years at the end of which the members were invited to the White House and awarded the ‘Coming Up Taller’ award by President Bill Clinton—an award that recognizes exemplary arts and humanities programs which foster young people’s intellectual and creative development.
“We brought them out of the ghettos and into the White House. It was a marvelous moment,” says Robinson.
As her company enters its 44th year, this woman of steel only seems to grow stronger. In her words, “I believed I could do it, and I did.”