Cleo Parker Robinson was visiting two former dancers in Washington, D.C., when she stumbled upon a book that inspired her holiday dance production that has celebrated cultural traditions from around the world for three decades.
“This couple had been members of my dance company and moved to D.C., where they started a family,” Robinson says. “I went to see them after they had their two girls and twins, and neither of them had a job. I was in the nursery room crying, going through toys, when I found this book called The Dancing Granny
The children’s book, a colorful West Indian folktale retold and illustrated by Ashley Bryan, celebrates the idea of family, friends, and the appreciation of individual uniqueness. Robinson read the book to her friends' children and came up with the idea of the dance production. She had started her dance company, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance
, in 1970, and already had the connections to make it happen. More than thirty years ago, Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum
was created, co-directed and co-written by Robinson and the late Denver poet and storyteller Opalanga Pugh
“When I came back to Denver from the D.C. trip," Robinson recalls, "Opalanga said to me, ‘Cleo, you know you’re always traveling everywhere with all the dancers, but what about the local artists, actors and poets here?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So she said, ‘I have a piece called the Festival of Light
that I’ve been taking to schools.’ And I had also been presenting The Dancing Granny
to the schools. So we came together and merged her poetry and writings with mine, and it became something wonderful.” The 73-year-old Robinson, who was raised by a Black father who loved jazz and a white mother who fancied classical music, says she learned early on about racial segregation, but also about embracing cultural differences.
“Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum” is back live with both matinees and evening options Saturday, December 11 through Sunday, December 19.
“My father, Jonathan ‘J.P.’ Parker
, was one of the first black actors in Denver. And back then, colored actors had to go underground. They couldn’t act in the theater,” Robinson recalls. “And my experience in the beginning was that we couldn’t even come through the front door of a theater or at any of the arts, like ballets and symphonies, because they were reserved for elitists. But my father taught me how to see one another and celebrate one another. He was committed to passion and compassion.
“I think that’s why Granny
was also so important. I wanted to bring the world to Denver, and I wanted to bring Denver to the world.”
Robinson says another motivation behind the inception of Granny
resulted from the times she would see dancers in her company who weren’t from Denver sad and depressed during the holidays. “They didn’t have the means to go home and spend it with their families. So I said, ‘You know what? This is your family. This is your village.' I realized we had to make a village real for everyone — the children, the teenagers, adults, the community. And we did that with Granny
," she says.
Now representing twelve cultures and many faiths, Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum
spreads the message of diversity, uniqueness, peace, love and “harambee,” the Swahili word for unity, as the elder recounts her youth to her grandson TiSean and granddaughter Nakia.
The story unfolds as Granny’s grandchildren ask her to share stories of all the places she's danced around the world, which prompts her to remember her colorful past. Sharing songs, dances and stories of what it was like when she performed throughout the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, Mexico and the Americas, Granny and her ensemble relive rich, global traditions. They honor the birth of Christ, the African Harvest, the Celtic Yule Time, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Diwali, the Chinese New Year, Las Posadas in Mexico, the Caribbean’s Junkanoo Day and the American Indian Winter Solstice.
Representing twelve cultures and many faiths, Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum boasts a multicultural cast of actors from the U.S., Mexico, Korea, Japan, Peru, the Philippines and more.
“When Granny tells her two grandchildren what an extraordinary life she’s had, I really wanted to make it real,” Robinson says. “I wanted them to really be in Africa, where I’ve been, and in Mexico, where we’ve taken the company and performed. I wanted them to know how welcomed we were, where we learned about the culture, and how we never felt like tourists, but rather a part of the community."
The heartfelt, family-friendly show has evolved over the past three decades, thanks to the diversity of artists, directors, stage and crew talent, costumes, choreography and music segments. This year’s iteration of Granny
features the singing of Denver’s First Lady Mary Louise Lee, Jimi Alexander and Jose Guerrero, as well as Japanese Taiko drumming
, something Robinson has always wanted to include in the performance.
Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum
kicks off on Saturday, December 11, at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance
company, which is housed in the former Shorter Community AME Church in Five Points. During the pandemic, CPRD converted the existing spaces into several dance studios, offices and a 240-seat theater, which now serves as the main stage for the company's performances. The production includes both matinees and evening options on various performance dates; details can be found on the company's website
After all live performances have wrapped up on Sunday, December 19, virtual streaming
will be available for a fee of $25 per household from Friday, December 24, to Saturday, January 8. “We have dancers who are from Mexico, Korea, Japan, Peru and the Philippines, so their families will be able to finally see it,” Robinson notes. In addition, free streaming services will be offered to children and families at Children’s Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 11, at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, 119 Park Avenue West; tickets are $35 to $45. Virtual streaming, $25 per household, will be available Friday, December 24, to Saturday, January 8.