An Unexpected Star is Born: My summer as a dance student
Editor’s note: This is DUS Publisher Bee Harris’ story of participating in Dancing With The
Denver Stars benefitting Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Arts-In-Education Movement and Cultural
Little did I realize during a fun evening in 2009 – at the home of Valeria and Lu Vason, along with friends Moses and Gwen Brewer, Gerald and Glynis Albright, Ken Johnson, and Richard Lewis – that our idea would put me onstage in a dance costume before nearly 800 peers live, and more online. Back then, Glynis’ world-famous waffles fueled our fundraising brainstorm for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Cleo and I have known each since before the birth of Denver Urban Spectrum close to four decades ago. Each of our professional missions to serve this community built a lovely relationship. Everyone knows Cleo has stories to share!
Currently, ABC’s 17-season Dancing With The Stars captures millions of viewers’ attention. Gwen, also a fan and now a retired speech pathologist, believed that Cleo Parker Robinson Dance could produce Dancing With The Denver Stars. I encouraged the idea into action and presented the concept to fellow members of the CPRD Board of Directors. Businessman Richard Lewis stepped up to the plate and became the first committed dancer in 2010, in addition to being a sponsor. It didn’t take long to realize that competitive, high-achieving leaders in our Denver community were eager for a creative challenge. Our concept had legs and evolved into an event increasing awareness of how Cleo Parker Robinson Dance serves students kindergarten through 12 th grade, not only locally but now globally.
We captured Cleo’s imagination in choreography and stageproduction, as well as the creativity of the CPRD Ensemble and the leadership of Administrative Director Rhetta Shead and the staff.
The waffles did it….
Our brainstorming session gave birth to what we still believe is the most energetic and fun gala in Denver: Dancing With The Denver Stars! Since 2010, Mayor Michael B. Hancock, John Hickenlooper, CEOs, professional athletes, educators, entertainers, ministers, attorneys, and finance wizards have trained with the dance company to support scholarships and programs for dance students. Short or long-term teaching artist residencies are underwritten or supplemented for global cultural education using movement. Partnered with the world-class professionals of the ensemble, our unusual cast of volunteer stars step onto the stage before an audience of peers.
Over the past 13 years, the Dancing With The Denver Stars fundraiser has brough in more than $2 million for student programs. In spite of our new-dancer nerves, there is so much enthusiasm for our mission: bringing life-changing dance, art and global culture to students without these school programs. Like these students, and our dance partners, our own stories include challenges, sacrifices and obstacles. Again, we learn that working as a team, anything is possible using this dance challenge to support students.
Thousands of nervous butterflies and costume sequins later, more than 200 alumni gala dancers have contributed to Cleo’s mission. Global cultural education, movement programs and school dance residencies deliver days, weeks and months of impactful experiences for students. One school brought in CPRD teaching artists during testing week to calm student anxiety and restlessness during hours of sitting. During the pandemic, students as far as India and Colombia connected to CPRD programs via Zoom.
No experience required: sign up, show up, and dance!
How did I get myself in this position? Over the years, Moses Brewer (then with Coors’ corporate marketing department) and a number of other friends mustered the courage to dance as a star. It was just a matter of time before yours truly had to say yes. I have to walk my talk. By the time you read this, I’ll have completed at least four rehearsals to prepare for showtime on August 13. Just like many kids and teens, I didn’t take lessons; I danced for fun with friends, learning by imitation. Young Shirley Temple and later Gregory Hines provided my first impressions of dance on screen.
Later, Stevie Wonder captured my awe in 1963, when I was 13 and he performed “Finger Tips” on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” In the ‘60s when I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was too young to visit nearby Detroit, our Motown. But that music mecca lived in my ears and heart through the sounds of Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson's the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, and Mary Wells. Those amazing artists provided the grooves for our basement dance parties as we danced the Jerk, the Slop, the Monkey – and unforgettable slow dances.
Fast-forward to 2022, and Denver’s biggest dance party!
Each mid-May, George Sparks, president of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, hosts a gala kickoff event after CPRD staff recruit a full roster of gala dancers. The dozen new recruits meet with Cleo and her staff in the beautiful glass atrium on the west side of the museum to
commit to sponsorship support and rehearsals. Later we were introduced to 100 attendees –
many of them supportive alumni dancers. We all come by our star status through different routes: some inquire about a dancer spot through the grapevine while others are invited by CPRD board members or accept a friendly challenge by a business peer. A few dancers have been “volun-told” by their bosses, including the mayor of Denver. This year, the cast includes Sparks and spouse, Dr. Shandra Wilson, chief of surgery at Centura Littleton Adventist Hospital, as well as former Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll, Reverend Quincy Shannon, and NFL Super Bowl star Ryan Harris.
Our commitment: behind the scenes of a complex dance production
After kickoff, the fun begins with reviewing music, costume choices, dancing shoes, fittings, and props, and determining if we have any dance experience – or talent. Then, rehearsals – we need them! Cleo chooses a theme each year linked to African American culture in theatre, music or film.
Next, we choose two or three songs in a medley, and as a dancing pair, determine the movement
genre of our partner dance…and a “dance story” to costume ourselves. Cleo guides us in this process and observes rehearsals. Keep in mind that nerves aren’t only for event night …my partner is the elegant Tyveze Littlejohn, a modern dance and ballet professional (yes, en pointe!) … and I am critiqued by Cleo! Our featured performance will last between two and four minutes. Those minutes are composed of weeks of rehearsals, carefully chosen dance steps, costumes, pacing, and our sequence. And it’s only one part of a large complex production.
In addition to our partner dance, all gala dancers will join a large-group, opening number in front of the 750-person audience in the largest ballroom of the Hilton Downtown Denver. Together we also close the evening in a stage-filled revue with Cleo II and Youth/Junior Youth Ensembles. In between, emcee Shed G and auctioneer Reggie Rivers’ talents raise more resources for Arts-In-Education programs. At the back of the ballroom, CPRD’s Trey Grimes leads an event production staff with sound, lighting, video, and still photography.
Our final dress rehearsals are during the weekend of August 6, a week before the gala. After we see each other’s routines and costumes, the competition rises to a new level. After only three months from signed agreement to showtime on August 13, there are a lot of details to install into
my mature brain and commit into muscle memory…. I am nervous as hell! But I know that with each rehearsal, those anxious butterflies (in all of us dancers) will spark our energy. My partner Tyveze—and the team supporting us—will make this a fun, memorable and impactful experience.
An evening accessible to all: live or online
Tickets are still available for tables or individuals, and we’ll have a livestreamed event you can watch from home. Will you cheer on all of us dance students? Visit cleoparkerdance.org for live or online access. Students in the schools you drive past each day will benefit—and thank you!
“Dancing With The Denver Stars was my out-of-the-box dream brought to reality with Bee Harris’ advocacy, Cleo Parker Robinson’s energy, and the dedicated work of staff. Beyond this Gala’s prominence and fun, its Arts-In-Education mission impacts thousands of students. Each dancer has bonded with CPRD in ways we never imagined because of visceral experiences as adult dance students benefiting K through 12 dancers”. —Gwen Brewer, Board Chair and CPRD Volunteer since 2001. Retired Speech Pathologist, Boulder Valley School District Special Education Department
“Dance conveys cultural stories from around the globe. Teaching global culture with dance
impacts young minds—and bodies—in learning. Models and mentors matter, and brought me
into this career. When children see teaching artists who look like them sharing stories of their
shared heritage, we impact the lives of students from all backgrounds with hope for the future in
One Spirit, Many Voices.” —Cleo Parker Robinson, Founder, CPRD