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Denver’s Cleo Parker Robinson Keeps Dancing

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DENVER (CBS4) – Cleo Parker Robinson has a way of putting life — and the economy — in perspective.

“It’s a challenging time, but I’ve been in challenging times. I’ve heard of challenging times. My grandmother, who’s 97, would tell me about her journey of 97 years, and the different presidents … and the slave master … she can tell me how it was to live with a master. I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s unbelievable,'” said Robinson.

The founder and executive artistic director of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble has survived plenty. Through the years, her experiences have driven her vision as a choreographer and dancer.

“Oh, I fell in love with dance from the time I could move, I’m sure,” Robinson said. “I think I was probably dancing in the womb.”

As a child, Robinson would teach neighborhood kids her latest dance steps outside the Parker’s Five Points home. Dance made her feel joyful, unlike some elements of the outside world.

“The Ku Klux Klan always made you have a lot of fear that it was your life. Many times, we knew our home could be burned. We knew that there were many things that could be dangerous, so we knew that we had to be a family,” Robinson said.

Robinson described hers as a loving household that embraced culture. Her father was a jazz musician, her mother an actress. The family endured hatred and racism because Robinson’s father was black and her mother was white.

“Having that place of being mixed … and yet the community wasn’t mixed, the community was just coming out of Jim Crowe laws. I think having to deal with what’s the law, what’s not the law, what’s breaking the law … it was a challenge,” said Robinson.

At one point, segregation almost cost Robinson her life. She was living with family in Dallas when her kidneys failed and she was rushed to the hospital.

“Because it was segregated and my mother being white and my grandparents being black … and who’s going to take me to the hospital and which hospital will take me,” said Robinson.

These experiences came together to drive Robinson’s unique style of choreography and dance.

“I’ve always had a real sense of life/death in the dance … that the dance is the life and if I’m not dancing, I’m not living,” said Robinson.

Robinson and her ensemble have traveled the world sharing the language of dance; a healiing language, as Robinson called it.

“I’ve been to the Pentagon, to the White House, to the cathedrals, I’ve been everywhere I feel it’s my place,” said Robinson. “That’s what I think art does. It allows us to understand our stories.”

She relishes speaking that language within the community, developing programs to give youth an alternative to drugs, gangs and other negative influences.

“I think I was, whatever you call, a youth at risk — we call a youth of promise, because the culture’s at risk if we don’t focus on our children and our youth. Learning to love yourself, learning to dig who you are. That’s my own journey,” Robinson said. “I feel I’m isolated in Denver as a modern dancer, as a female director of a dance company, as a black woman running a company of this nature, in an area that is not predominantly black … and yet, that never stopped me.”

The arts are suffering around the world in this economy. Nine Broadway shows have recently been canceled, and countless exhibits are following suit.

Robinson said those who make it learn to make it through hard times.

When she started her company in Five Points in 1970, she had no studio, no dancers and very little budget.

Now, more than 30 years later, Cleo Parker Robinson dance has had an international impact, and Robinson herself has received countless awards, including an appointment to the National Council on the Arts.

“I guess there’s a community dance spirit that says if you fall, get back up. And, if somebody else falls, help them up … and we’re still here.”

CPRD is preparing to host the 21st annual International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference Jan. 29 through Feb. 1, 2009.

This year’s event will showcase the healing power of art.

Robinson said audiences can expect world class performances from all types of artists at the Denver Performing Arts Complex/Ellie Caulkins Theatre.

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