Cleo Parker Robinson is known both for her talent as a dancer and her tenacity in creating a cultural arts institution that serves more than 60,000 people each year. Through the power of art and dance, the non-profit Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD) organization has engaged 12,000 public school students each year, including gang members and many at-risk youth in a cross cultural arts experience.
Cleo Parker Robinson grew up in the arts in Denver’s Five Points and Park Hill neighborhoods. Her parents were both musicians and her father was one of the first black actors in Denver at the former Bonfils theater. She studied with top dancers and choreographers in Colorado and New York, including Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, an African-American dance pioneer. Forty-six years ago, Robinson started her own dance ensemble while a student at the former Colorado Women’s College (now the campus of Johnson & Wales University). Eventually, she moved and expanded the school to its present location in Five Points, creating a non-profit organization that now receives funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) to help fund free and affordable programs including: a professional modern dance ensemble, youth ensemble, a professional and community dance, an international summer dance institute, a 246-seat theater and community outreach programs. Robinson has gone on to win many civic and academic awards, and she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the National Council on the Arts in 1999.
Two years ago, Robinson, now 68, turned over the role of executive director to her son Malik. He started out by helping his father, Tom Robinson, who, for years, had been the organization’s volunteer business manager while also working full time as a math teacher and as an official for NCAA football on the weekends. “He had his hands full!” says Malik, who then became the organization’s booking manager, arranging for the ensemble’s performances domestically and internationally.
Malik was born into the arts in the same neighborhood where his mother grew up. He did a little acting as a child and was always around his mother’s dance organization. But when asked about his own dance experience, he says, “I started dancing at an early age and I stopped dancing at an early age. Growing up, I had such a respect for the art form but I knew that I didn’t have the will or the discipline (to be a dancer).” Still, Malik grew up fully entrenched in the world of dance, connecting with the likes of world-famous choreographer Alvin Ailey, who suggested he take up dance to help his performance as an athlete.
“I had a deep appreciation for what they did, but I also wanted to pursue sports and hang out in the neighborhood,” he says, adding, “And I wanted my friends to have the same experiences I was having (in the dance studio).”
Malik has used his administrative strengths rather than dance abilities to serve his family legacy and the world of dance. He partnered with Metropolitan State University to create a dance major in an individualized degree program, the first dance major in Denver. CPRD students, who have always received help from the Academy in preparing for college, now have another option for furthering their dance studies.
And Malik, remembering he wanted his friends to have the kind of dance experiences he had at his family’s studio as a child, developed and directs CPRD’s after-school programming.
“I’m so proud of Malik,” says Cleo Parker Robinson, “He does things I could have never thought about or do.” She says the hard part is knowing when to back off and when to get involved. “I want to allow him to find his own voice, but then for me to know when it’s time for me to jump in,” she says, adding that it’s all part of the growth of the business. “As Malik goes around the country with the company, he carries himself with every bit of who we all are.”
“Granny Dances to A Holiday Drum,” a celebration of 15 cultures will be performed at CPRD from December 3 to 18. For more information, visit cleoparkerdance.org and the Front Porch Holiday Events article.