Born and raised in Denver, Cleo Parker Robinson started her eponymous dance school in 1970; 20 years ago she moved the school to the historic Shorter Community AME Church in Five Points. Here, she talks about how dancing is like food, renovating a church into a dance center, and the "Harlem of the West."
I was born in Five Points. Our first apartment was at the Rossonian Hotel, which was the only black hotel at the time. The Rossonian was the club where all the greats came, like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. We were just surrounded by music—if musicians came to Denver, they came to the Points. It felt like it was the Harlem of the West.
I was the first of four children, and my mother and father loved music. My mother was a classical musician from the San Diego Symphony, and my father loved to play jazz. They met at a dance in Denver, and I think that they were one of the first interracial couples in Denver, which was incredibly difficult. The police used to follow them down the street.
We moved to Dallas when I was 9 or 10 and lived with my grandparents. It was a huge shift in my life, because they lived in a very segregated, all-black community. Denver was segregated also, but because I was growing up in the mixed jazz community, I wasn't aware of it at the time.
In Dallas, being children who were mixed, living in a segregated neighborhood, was very complicated. It shaped my activism. We have to create a more just and inclusive community.
Dance brings people from all walks of life and makes them feel like they belong.
I've spent a lot of time in Africa, Europe, and Asia, and it's a powerful experience to see how ancient dance is. Dance is like food—it's cultural. Ballet comes from Europe, and when you study it you study all of Europe's history. It's the same with kabuki from Japan, and East Indian dance—all the dance forms.
I think everyone lives in three circles—within their community, their family, and their individual selves—that they have to integrate. We're affected by all of those circles, but we're also separate. We're in the middle of it, but we're also individuals.
The most productive people I meet are the ones who understand community, family, and themselves. They're able to hear their own drum in the ensemble of all drums.
It's important that everyone has his or her own moment in the sun. Even though we all have different talents and temperaments, we all need the same things: to be loved, acknowledged, and respected.
We have a real problem of obesity and youth depression in this country. I think we have to rediscover how to be connected to our bodies.
People look at dancers' bodies and don't know how much work goes into it mentally. To be a great dancer, you have to train, train, train.
We have a responsibility to ourselves to be the best we can be in our own lives.
The Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church moved to Colorado and Martin Luther King boulevards in the 1980s, and the original building, at Park and 20th, sat empty for eight years. They needed a community cultural institution to take on the responsibility of the building, and they came to us.
My husband, Tom, said the church would be wonderful, but I wasn't sure. Pigeons and mice were living there, and people had vandalized it. I didn't have a vision, but he did. We took the walls down and built a dance floor, and I think we've built it into one of the best dance spaces in the country. We're in our 40th year now, and Denver has embraced it. People feel like this is their dance program.