Visiting Denver, which I’ve done a number of times throughout my life, has been like watching a child grow up. Every time I go, it’s bigger than the last time. This made finding Rhetta Shead at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance company, in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, a special bit of good fortune. Cleo and the organization have a long historical value to both the city and the country — but they’re also bending to, and dealing with, the change around them. Rhetta is at the heart of all of it.
Rhetta has her own history — with jobs going back to when she was 12, and rolled up hair for an elderly woman in town — but like Five Points, she’s all about what it takes to get things done in today’s world. During our short visit, Rhetta talked me through her path, explained the importance of Cleo Parker Robinson and family, the building’s history (it was burned down at one point by the Klan), and a tour of the main stage, with an impressive row of seats that the company bought from Steven Spielberg’s private screening room. The most revealing moment took place in a little practice room, as one of the dancers worked with a prominent businesswoman on a routine for the studio’s upcoming gala. He lifted her into the air, Rhetta cheered with joy, and the whole city seemed to make sense to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your current job?
Okay. I’m Rhetta Shead. I am 57 years old and you’re at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Colorado.
My job title is Director of Marketing and Administration. What that means is I handle all the marketing for the organization, the advertising buys, work with our graphic artists, photographers, videographers, and then I also handle all the administrative for the organization — so I do the payroll, pay the bills, work with the audit, do the deposits, do the human resources, help Cleo with her schedule, so doing all the scheduling for the organization and whatever else comes up.
I have been here almost four years.
What was your proclivity as a child? How well does what you’re doing now line up with that?
I did take dance as a child and theater, so I always had a love for the arts. My mother taught dance for many years at the University of Colorado Boulder and she also taught in Alabama, Florida, and in Buffalo, New York — so I’ve been around theater my whole life. I have an uncle who is a composer, conductor, and opera singer, and he lives in the San Francisco area. Being around the arts was always something that I loved. I always kind of thought in the back of my mind I’d work in the arts, but I knew there wasn’t a lot of money in the arts so I set my sights on different places before I finally ended up here.
I went to Arizona State University to be a political science major. That was my first love; I wanted to be a lawyer. I used to practice all the time by putting my cousins and friends on trial in the house and… I figured I watched enough TV shows. I knew Perry Mason by heart. It just didn’t feel right once I got to college, so I switched to communications. My advisor said take things that are of interest to you. That’s when I started getting back into dance again. I took every dance performance class they had and then started taking all these history classes because I wanted to really understand different areas of the arts. I took every art history, music history, dance history, theater history, architecture history class that a non-major could take, then business classes, and created my own kind of arts management type of a degree, with communications and marketing as my major field of study.
Then I got appointed my senior year to the performing arts board for the university so I was part of a group that reviewed applications, different tapes, photographs, and bios of companies from all over the world who wanted to perform in our performing arts theater on campus. That was a Frank Lloyd Wright designed building.
I saw Lena Horne on that stage. I saw Martha Graham Dance Company on that stage. I got really excited when the opportunity to be able to help choose some of the performances came up, that I jumped at it and I always was friends with a bunch of the people in the student government. I just didn’t run for anything so they said oh you’ve got this. Especially because a lot of African Americans didn’t get into that kind of stuff, so I was pretty excited.
It was the late ’70s, early ’80s, there was still a lot of… not unrest… it was just people weren’t ready to put themselves out there yet. There was like two of us, me and this other guy that got involved in things outside of our circle of friends.
Can you talk a little bit about on stage versus off stage for you? Did you ever have dreams of being on the stage?
No. I’m not an “in front of the camera, on the stage” type of person. I’ve always been kind of behind-the-scenes. I’m better at planning and putting things together. One of the things that I’ve done for the last 30 some years is that I choreograph an event in town called Beautillion, which honors African American boys that are seniors in high school. It’s like their coming out, so I’ve been their choreographer since the second year of the event. I like that. I like being in the back, putting things together, making and watching it happen, and watching it take off. Because from the rest of my resumé, you’ll see I’m totally about being part of an event but not being out in the front of the event.
How did you get this job?
This is pretty funny. The job I had before this was with the city of Lakewood, Colorado. I coordinated all their marketing for about five years. Then I got really tired. I wasn’t around my youngest daughter as much when she was going through preschool as I was with my older daughter. So I said, I need a break. I took a break and that lasted maybe a week or two then I came here. My kids had been taking classes here since they were both three years old, and now they’re 21 and almost 16.
I’ve been friends with Cleo and her family for many years. I came here one day. Mary said oh, come use our computers, so I started using their computers to help me find a job other places. I would go on. I’d use the fax machine and I’d send out my resumés, do all that kind of stuff, and I would be here a couple hours a week. Then it turned into, hey, can you come in and help me with this project? Sure. Then it’d be a couple days a week and then it turned into almost five days a week and they were giving me big projects as a volunteer. I was not being paid, and then Cleo needed help going on tour. She was short a person, and since I could make flyers, do things on the computer, help her with PR while she would be on tour, and make sure that she could get back to the dancers to get them rehearsed while she’s doing an interview, I ended up doing that a couple of times. I think I went to three cities with her on tour. Two out of state, one in state.
I went from executive administrative assistant to a director of administration then I took on a bigger role on the marketing, which I was already doing, so they just added the title.
Is this a fulfilling job?
You know it’s a job, some days. But you know, when you see what the dancers do on stage and you feel their energy, and you hear Cleo tell stories, amazing stories about people who touched her life, who helped her build this organization over the last 48 years, it just really humbles you. Because it’s really, what she’s done and the people she’s had to work with, it’s amazing. She’s worked with presidents, and she’s met presidents of other countries. She had dancers as young as 15 in her company when she started back in the ’70s.
She nurtures people. She is just one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. And her husband is just as amazing and strong, but he’s a math guy. When he started out, he was a football player who got injured and then started teaching math at his old high school, which was a Catholic boys school at the time, here in town. He taught there for 30 years while he was coaching basketball and officiating NCAA college football, which he still does as an instant replay official. He flies out every weekend during football season to do the instant replay at different games. And she’s flying here and there with the dancers or in meetings or whatever, I mean it’s amazing. But they got married right when she was starting this organization. So 48 years of marriage and 48 years of the company.
Can you describe Cleo and her accomplishments for people who don’t know?
Sure. So Cleo Parker Robinson started this company in 1970 when she received a grant through the city of Denver to manage the dance program for an organization called Model Cities, which was part of a federal grant. Different cities around the country received money to create these “model city programs” where they were offering programs to families and people who couldn’t afford to be able to do some of this kind of stuff and dance was the area that she was responsible for. So that’s where she started building her dance school.
When the funding ended she kept it going on her own, her and her husband Tom, kept the whole thing going to create this dance school here in town for those people who couldn’t afford. So that’s one thing that has continued with our current academy is that, if you can’t afford to take a class, we’ll help you. We offer scholarships, our gala helps cover scholarships for kids to be able to take class and adults. So it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you have a passion and a willingness to learn, we’ll make sure you get into a class or two or 10, whatever you need.
She started her company based on students she was working with in the local high schools. And then this one young lady who was a student at Denver East High School, Marceline Freeman, became her principle dancer for 38 years until she passed away. And she built the performing ensemble based on her experiences traveling to New York, working with Alvin Ailey, working with Arthur Mitchell taking classes in their studios, becoming friends with them and realizing, she can do this same thing at home in Denver.
Cleo was born right here down the street in Five Points. Her father was one of the first black actors here in Denver. His name was John Parker, he worked for the Bond Fees Theatre for quite some time with Henry Lowenstein so he learned everything there was to know about the theater, became her technical director when she started her company. Her mother was a classical musician out of San Diego, she was white. With her parents being in an interracial marriage, there were certain places her mother couldn’t go. The hotel they were living in down the street, the Rossonian, her mother had to come in the back stairs because it was a black hotel.
She got her degree from Colorado Women’s College which now is part of the University of Denver. Over the years she’s brought in some of the top African American choreographers from all over the world to come in and choreograph pieces for our company.
We’re one of the top five companies. People wanna be here because of Cleo — because she will make you feel important. She will give you a chance to be the best person you can be. And she’s gonna try new, unique, and crazy stuff on stage, and she’s still choreographing at age 70. She’s still doing it hard and strong; these guys they can’t keep up half the time and she just keeps going. But they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it. And it’s all about passion. Everything’s about passion in dance.
Will you share a little more about the importance of dance?
You know dance gives you so much. Dance is one of those areas, where it’s not just about exercise. One of the philosophies that Cleo lives by is, “one spirit, many voices.” So she looks at all of us as being one. That we all share the same spirit and we all have a voice that can get out there and tell everyone what our experiences are. She also believes in the mind body spirit, so when we’re dancing and when they’re performing, it’s all about, not just the external, it’s the internal. It’s like if you can all be of the same mind and of the same philosophy, then the movements are just gonna flow with that. So she tries to really be as open as possible and make sure that her dancers have that same philosophy.
People come here because they feel it spiritually inside of them, that this is a place they should be. We’ve had kids come through here who felt they didn’t belong anywhere and then they came here and felt like they were at home. She makes everyone feel like, “This is where you should be. This is the place for you.” She doesn’t try to make you feel like you can’t be here. She wants you to be here.
What about dance as a career path as it relates to other careers in the world?
You know, dance as a career, it would take a true dancer to have a conversation about that because they all do it because it’s in them. It’s part of who they are, they wanna dance. They don’t wanna have another job. They want this to be their only job because they wanna be able to express themselves. I’ve watched dancers become so emotional from the movement they’re doing that they break down in tears, and it takes forever to console them to get them ready for the next thing they have to do because it means that much to them. That dance, it’s just like someone who’s a chemist, they’re passionate about learning what makes things come together and how they can make it better for the rest of the world. And I think dance is the same way. These guys come here because this is one of the top dance companies in the country, for black dance.
It sounds like it’s really important for you to work at a place that’s doing what you’re talking about.
I think it’s always important to go somewhere where you believe in what they’re doing and that you can easily without compromising your own beliefs and values, be able to promote and support an organization that really is like-minded. That’s huge because so many people take jobs just because it’s a job, and I’ve done those jobs, I’ve had those jobs. I think everyone’s had at least three or four of those kind of jobs before you really find something that fits who you are and where you’re going and where you’ve been. It’s hard sometimes to find the right fit. My husband is a great example; he was in television for 25 years as a videographer, as a engineer, a technical director. I mean he did it all. And it started to become just a job. There was no outlet for him to use his creativity — he is very creative. So he started freelancing, and it’s hard to make that switch from that steady paycheck to nothing.
It’s so hard to make those choices. But he’s gotta be able to feel good about what he does. If he doesn’t feel good then it doesn’t help us. He’s picked up on little things here and there to supplement, but it’s that passion, he has a passion to be creative. Let people be creative.
There seems to be a movement today toward more passion led careers. Do you see that here?
I mean I look at people who, like my father, was in his job forever. He was a chemist and he’s since passed, but he worked at Rocky Flats which was the nuclear weapons plant. But he was in the health and environmental labs so he wasn’t near the hot stuff as they said. But he loved what he did. He loved being a chemist. He had his masters degree in chemistry. He loved it and he stayed at it. We moved here in ’71; he was in that job until the ’90s. So, that was more dedication, and I think there’s a difference between passion and dedication. He loved what he did, he knew he had to support a family with three children and a wife. But he also enjoyed chemistry. He just, his brain worked that way.
My mom loved being a teacher. Loved being a teacher. She had her own dance company for a while. Her dancers loved her. They’re still around town. They come over to the house, help her, and do things with her.
How does the current political climate affect what’s going on here?
I’ve been reading emails the last few days about one of the first things Trump was thinking about cutting was the NEA (The National Endowment for the Arts). An amendment to a bill was defeated last week, but now it’s going to the floor this week to make sure that the NEA actually gets funding. Dance USA is reaching out to everyone, write to your congressmen and senators to make sure that this funding doesn’t go away.
I think it’s making people more politically active and more politically aware of what’s going on. You hear in the arts circle more about how people are upset with the current administration and what they’re not doing to be supportive. When you’re a minority, you see what they’re doing to minorities who have always been there and supported you, and how people are worried about their families. We have a young lady from Seoul, South Korea. We worry about her and her visa standing and what we’re gonna have to do to make sure she can stay in the country to continue working with us.
I think the current climate is hurting the arts more than it’s hurting anybody because it’s making people leery. They’re afraid to spend money right now. I don’t think people are spending the way they used to spend.
We deal a lot with the Mexican Consulate, we just did a huge art exhibit with them. They’re our friends. They’re people we work with. They have family in Mexico and they have family in the United States. All you can do is just be a friend and be supportive of what they’re dealing with and what they’re going through. You worry… I mean, I worry about my daughter’s friends in her school. Innocent kids, you know, who wonder about their families, their parents, and what’s gonna happen to them. There’s just a lot on those kids’ backs right now.
I want to make sure I get this one line of questioning in with you. This is a black owned business, you’ve touched…
Black female owned business! Which is a whole different deal. To have a woman own her own business for 48 years, is huge.
It is huge! Can you talk about the importance of that for this community?
Well you know, I think it’s important in Denver, because there’s so few businesses that were owned by women and so few black owned businesses, especially right now with so many going out of business because of gentrification and lack of support from the black community. Which is very weird because so many people who used to live right here in the Denver area have all moved to the suburbs. So they’re not coming in and utilizing the businesses the way they used to when they lived in the neighborhoods. And now they’re only going to the businesses out by them where they live and Denver keeps moving east, west, south, I mean it’s vast now into the suburbs.
I believe it was one of the former mayors, actually had a couple of buildings, and this would have been in the ’80s, had a couple of buildings that they were looking at donating for a very minimum lease to a black organization and Cleo was one of those. That’s how we got this building. So one of the mayors actually said, “I know you need a new building, here’s a couple of buildings we have. We’ll do this minimal lease, you know, which one do you want?” And she picked this one because it’s in the neighborhood where she grew up. And this is the neighborhood she feels strongest about.
Cleo kept all of her studios in proximity to where we are through the years. So I think it’s really important to show other kids in the community that you can do anything you put your mind to. If you decide you wanna start a business, you can start a business, and you can sustain a business. If Cleo can sustain this business with, you know recessions, funding cuts, corporate funding cuts, and all the things that go into what a non-profit has to use to be sustainable, and still be in existence after all of that, over 48 years, that says a lot for the parts of the community that have continued to be supportive.