Samiyah Lynniece Parramore dances at St. Joseph’s in celebration of 50 years of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in June 2020. Photo provided by Cleo Parker Robinson.
Dance is about movement. It can be slow and deliberate as it tells a story, or it can be fast and free, with the only objective to get people up and moving.
Cleo Parker Robinson has been dancing for almost 70 years now. Her dance has told stories from the history of Angela Davis to the AIDS epidemic. She has certainly gotten people up and moving, but her moves and art have also been about protest and being heard.
The founder of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and School said every time she created something new, she was afraid it might not work for the entire community.
“I had people like my father and my mother say, ‘You know what honey, I don’t know. This might be a little, might be a little too deep for our community. You might wanna … lighten it up.’ And the more I would work with it, out of my spirit and soul, I was like, ‘Nope! I got something to say,’” she said.
Ever since she has said it as loud and bold as dance will permit. Even before Robinson’s birth in 1948, her parents’ union was a protest of the era’s laws. With her mother being white and her father being Black, the couple traveled to five different states in pursuit of marriage. They finally wed when interracial marriage became legal in Colorado in 1957. The fact that she is alive is her body’s own form of protest against the discrimination she faced as a child. She almost died at age ten when a segregated hospital in Dallas refused to admit her for a kidney condition. When doctors expected her to be bedridden for the rest of her life from the incident, Robinson’s spirit protested. She refused to give in to physical and emotional pain. Robinson not only got up and started moving, but was teaching university-level dance by age 15.
After watching the protests over police violence against Black people this year, Robinson said she’s hoping a lot will come out from the reignited public discourse. She sees that people are ready for change and willing to risk their lives for a more just society, and she finds these young people incredible.
Recently the school had been teaching dance in the detention centers in Bogata, Texas. Robinson said the girls there were very young and only spoke Spanish.
“I couldn’t believe they were locked away,’’ she said. “But when we began to dance with them they could outdance anybody. They had the moves.” She said, laughing at the memory. “They were just like … BAM! Let me show you what I got. I been watchin’ MTV!”
It wasn’t long after that the pandemic put a stop to the school’s work. Initially, there were many different events planned from June of this year through Dec. 2021, to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Public Relations manager Patricia Smith said radical shifts had to be made quickly. About 1,100 students went to a virtual model for classes. Regularly planned events either went into virtual mode or were canceled altogether.
“Typically every year the company has a gala fundraiser called Dancing with the Denver Stars, and that’s usually in August,” Smith said. “There’s about 12 to 13 community leaders, including Mayor Hancock and John Hickenlooper, who danced in this. They pair up with a member of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. It’s very ballroom. And obviously, none of that happened.”
Smith said the event raises a lot of money for the arts and educational outreach programs that reach about 20,000 students in the state. Most of the sold-out performances to celebrate the anniversary had to be canceled this year due to COVID-19, affecting the school financially. They’ve been able to do some classes in an outdoor amphitheater that belongs to the company as well as some dance classes that take place in the grass outside the school. They’ve also done virtual performances, dance classes and some live stream performances. Smith said that on a positive note, it pushed the company into doing all those things online that will continue to benefit them later on. It also helped to build a library of dance instruction.
Robinson said going into 2020 to celebrate their 50th anniversary, she couldn’t imagine the year would have been like this.
“Everything became just such a great … almost like a hurricane, just like an emotional hurricane,” she said. “I just thought, emotionally, we got to be able to get through this. And I began to reflect on the things we have experienced in our 50 years.”
The school has been through social and racial unrest and economic downfall, but they always found ways to keep the company together. But, Robinson said, they’d never experienced anything like this. They needed to figure out a way to keep it together, and then share that with the rest of their community.
They transitioned quickly. Robinson did her first Zoom TV interview April 1 and has done many more since. From March to May the school provided whatever instruction they could virtually. Dancers stuck in their apartments were asked to create work that resonated with them. The result was “Dancer Diaries.”
“They’re not just dancing, they are doing everything,” Robinson said. “They’re playing music that moves them, they’re lighting up a moment. You can tell what the confinement meant physically to them. Because we have to move, and they couldn’t get out of their apartments. And their apartments were small, and all of those things. They began to explore other ways of expressing themselves and that was good. Some shared their fear, or their anger, or their moments of joy that were just more personal for them. It was really extraordinary. I learned a lot more about my dancers at that time.”
Even as the COVID-19 restrictions have slowly started letting up and protesting has died down, the school is steadily transitioning to keep up. But they are used to change. Over the years, Robinson has seen radical shifts in the Five Points neighborhood surrounding the school.
“Five Points was a place where people were gathered because of how extraordinary the music was. We would hear music from Duke Ellington and Cab Callaway and Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson,” Robinson said. “You heard all of the great artists in the world that came to the West. They came to this region, that’s where they went. So, people of different colors, of different backgrounds, came. Even though there were laws against it. So they became the first protests that I knew.”
Robinson said she’s watched Five Points change as civil rights were won, and then change again as it became gentrified. She said the people that helped build the community aren’t there anymore, so that sense of community she used to feel is no longer there. They are constantly working to have a presence in Five Points, and she’s always felt she had something to prove to the rest of the country.
“So we’d bring people from all over the world. We made a place on the corner that really is alive. It’s still really alive. But I think it’s forever a challenge,” she said.
Robinson notes that we’re living in a very fragile time and need to be aware of our actions.
“I hope we have better love for one another,” she said. “Where everyone has a better look on life. So when you look at someone else, you just go, ‘I want the best for you. What can I do to make that happen?’ Because we’re not just here living on the planet by ourselves, we’re here for one another.”