Cleo Parker Robinson grew up in Denver's Five Points neighborhood and developed an innovative dance school that operates to this day.
Cleo Parker Robinson was born in Denver, Colorado, on July 17, 1948. Her father, Jonathan Parker, was employed at the Bonfils Theater and may have been the first paid African American actor in Denver. Cleo’s mother, Martha Mae Roberts, was a white woman who had been a child prodigy and earned an apprenticeship playing the French horn with the San Diego Symphony. The America of Cleo’s childhood was not always an easy place for interracial families. Sometimes the family would be followed by police and people would hurl insults at her mother for being married to an African American man, but she also found many supportive people in the city.
When she was 10 years old, Cleo would get her first serious glimpse of segregated America. Her parents separated for a brief time and Cleo moved with her mother, sister, and two brothers to Dallas, Texas. Because interracial families were not accepted by white society in Texas, they lived in the African American section of town. While in Dallas, Cleo suffered a medical emergency when her kidneys began to shut down. The local hospital was segregated and they turned her away. Because of the delay, she suffered a heart attack and doctors suspected she might be confined to a bed for the rest of her life. She says this discrimination left her with a sense of anxiety, anger, and pain that would only feel better when she began to dance.
Despite serious health concerns as a result of her heart attack, she began teaching a dance class at the University of Colorado, while she was still in high school. After graduation, she went on to study dance at Colorado Women’s College. She was interested in using dance to help abused children, people dealing with addiction, and those with disabilities. In 1968, she was able to go to New York and study under dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell had been the first African American member of the New York City Ballet, and went on to establish the famous Dance Theatre of Harlem. His work inspired her to think about starting her own dance studio.
Once she finished college, she began studying at University at Denver and considered getting an advanced degree in psychology. She had also just married her childhood sweetheart, Tom Robinson. Tom was a teacher, as well as an athletic coach. Soon after, she was offered the chance to run the Model Cities Cultural Center’s Dance Workshop. The program allowed her to engage with kids from the community and share her love of dance. Within two years, she began her own dance school called the New Dance Theater. She also began a performance company called the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble.
During the course of her career, she and the dancers who have performed with her ensemble have received a great deal of recognition from around the country. Cleo received Colorado's Governor's Award for Excellence in 1974, was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame in 1989, and was appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1999. Her performance company has performed in 30 countries around the world.
Like many other institutions that rely on live performances, the Covid-19 epidemic meant it was very difficult to keep the school and performance company afloat. Despite these challenges, Cleo and her performers were able to reach 80,000 people through social media and other platforms. She worked to secure funding through foundations and individual donations so that her vision could continue into the future. The school and ensemble still operate in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver and are housed in Denver’s famous African American Shorter American Methodist Episcopal Church building. Cleo is still very active with the institution she created 50 years ago. She remains an engaged member of the Denver arts community.
apprenticeship - learning a craft or skill by working with an expert
segregated - not allowing people from different races or groups to be together
anxiety - feeling nervous about things that might happen
choreographer - someone who constructs the moves dancers will make during a performance
epidemic - a fast-spreading disease that affects many people
Have you had any health problems in your own life that made you feel like you couldn't accomplish as much? How do you work to overcome that feeling?
Did you or a friend's family ever experience problems because their parents looked different from other people in the community?
Do you like to dance or have you found other activities that make you more confident as a person?