Denver native Cleo Parker Robinson was born on July 17, 1948. She almost died at age ten when her kidneys shut down and a segregated Dallas hospital did not admit her quickly enough to prevent heart failure. A doctor told her she would remain bedridden her entire life, but Robinson refused to believe that. She threw herself into dancing in order to overcome the pain of her body and the racism she faced. Today, she is the founder, the executive artistic director and choreographer of the 40+ year-old Denver-based artistic institution, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. She leads a professional dance Ensemble, Youth Ensemble, a School of Dance, an International Summer Dance Institute, a 300 seat theatre that bears her name, and a myriad of community outreach programs. She continues to be the recipient of honors and awards from civic, community, and artistic organizations around the world, and is called on by a myriad of organizations and performance venues to bring her Ensemble for performances, and to conduct workshops, master classes, and motivational seminars. Her philosophy of “One Spirit, Many Voices” is reflected in all she does, and is the vision she brings to everyone she meets, everywhere she goes.
Robinson began teaching dance at the University of Colorado at the age of fifteen. She graduated from the Colorado Women's College (now Denver University), having focused on dance, education and psychology. She studied with legendary dancer and humanitarian Katherine Dunham and then founded her own company in 1970. The mission of this ensemble is to foster appreciation, access and the development of new audiences for dance. Robinson attempts to educate audiences about the rich heritage and ancestral gifts on which this predominately African American ensemble draws through a year-round dance school, an international summer dance institute and national and international performances. Robinson also seeks to ensure the arts are carried on by future generations. A program called Project Self-Discovery (PSD) demonstrates her commitment to youth outreach. PSD provides the arts to at-risk Denver youth as an alternative to gang activity, substance abuse and other tragic possibilities. The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble has performed in prisons, and some inmates have worked for the company after release. Robinson firmly believes in the healing power of art and that dance is a universal language.
A master teacher/choreographer and cultural ambassador she has taught and performed with her Ensemble in such diverse places as Iceland, Singapore, Hawaii, Nassau, Belize, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, throughout Europe, and throughout the African continent. People of all ages and backgrounds have participated in Ms. Parker Robinson’s workshops and master classes at conservatories, universities and neighborhood dance centers worldwide Ms. Parker Robinson’s awards include the Colorado’s Governor’s Award for Excellence (1974), Denver’s Mayor’s Award (1979), induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame (1989) and the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame (1994). Recognized in Who’s Who in America Colleges and Universities she holds Honorary Doctorate from Denver University (1991), an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Colorado College (2003), and an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service from Regis University in Denver (2008). Ms. Parker Robinson was a long-standing member of the Board of Directors for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and in 1998 Cleo Parker Robinson Dance became an affiliate of the Center.
In 1998, President Clinton named Ms. Parker Robinson as one of two artists to be appointed to the National Council on the Arts where she served until 2005 as one of the two appointed members of the fourteen-member council in Washington D.C. In 2005, Ms. Parker Robinson received a Kennedy Center Medal of Honor during the Center’s “Masters of African American Choreographers” series. Also in 2005, Ms. Parker Robinson received the King M. Trimble Community Award for service to the Denver community.
Ms. Robinson received the first-ever Peaceful Heart Award from Mile-Hi Church, and was honored by the Colorado Gospel Hall of Fame, and the Metro State College Plain & Fancy Ball. In 2006, she received the “Jill” Award from the South Suburban Denver Chapter of Jack & Jill of America, Inc., honoring her work with young people. Also in 2006, Ms. Parker Robinson was honored as a “Pioneer In Black Dance” by the Dynamic Dance Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2007, she received the Huntington’s Disease of America Distinguished Leadership Award., the “Fairfax B. Holmes Community Award” from The Denver Links, Inc. and the “Unsung Heroes Mountain Award” from African American Leadership Institute. In 2008, she was awarded the President’s Award of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, the Civil Rights Award of the Anti-Defamation League, and the Civil Rights Medallion of the Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professorship program.
In 2009, Ms. Robinson received the Metropolitan State College of Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Award for Service to the Community, and the Dr. Martin King Jr. / William “Bill” Roberts Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award. Most recently, she was awarded the 2009 NEWSED Civil Rights Award, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver (2010).
Robinson has collaborated with many people on diverse projects, from operas such as "Aida" and "Carmen" to commissions with mentor Maya Angelou. She has worked with Marin Alsop, conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, on such pieces as "Porgy and Bess" and Stravinsky's "The Firebird". She has been granted choreography fellowships from the Colorado Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Lila Wallace Foundation, among others. Robinson was featured in the Gordon Parks film, "Run Sister Run". She serves as first vice president of the International Association of Blacks in Dance and as a Denver Center for the Performing Arts Board of Trustees member.
Sources: The history makers ; Cleo Parker Robinson Dance