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  • Writer's pictureLaDawn Sullivan

A Night with Denver Swans Celebrating Black Excellence in the Arts

Image of LaDawn Sullivan, Karlya Sheldon Benjamin, and Cleo Parker Robinson on a stage

In the world of ballet, where every movement tells a story of grace, discipline, and tradition, a narrative of resilience transcends the stage. It's a narrative embodied by the first Black ballerinas, whose journeys have been immortalized in Karen Valby's "The Swans of Harlem." These stories aren't just about breaking barriers in dance; they're about triumphing over adversity, and they speak to the enduring spirit of the pursuit of excellence against all odds.


Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a conversation celebrating Black excellence in the arts, where the dialogue centered on the passion, justice, and calling of dance as a 'gift from God.' As we reflected on the journeys of these remarkable Swans of Denver, it became evident that their artistry is not just about movement; it's about purpose and divine inspiration. It's a calling to uplift, inspire, and challenge the world's norms and perceptions.


Anchoring our conversation was the Dance Theater of Harlem, a beacon of excellence founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook. This institution provided a platform for Black dancers and challenged Eurocentric norms in ballet. It became a symbol of empowerment, representation, and resistance—a testament to the transformative power of the arts in driving social change.


The ease of the night's conversation between Denver's own Karlya Sheldon Benjamin and Cleo Parker Robinson, two icons in the world of dance, transported all who attended to a time where dance equaled revolution. Their youthful exuberance defied the status quo, reminding us that every plié, every leap, and every pirouette could be a form of resistance.


The rise of dancers like Karlya, one of the five Black principal ballerinas highlighted in "The Swans of Harlem," exemplifies the journey toward racial justice, equity, and liberation in dance. Through the perseverance and talent of dancers and company founders like Cleo, they shattered misconceptions. More importantly, they paved the way for future generations of Black dancers to claim their rightful place in the spotlight.


Our conversation also underscored the importance of supporting anchor institutions like the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, a nurturing ground for aspiring Black dancers. These organizations play a critical role in preserving and celebrating Black culture through the arts, fostering a sense of pride, humanity, and unity within our communities.


In co-hosting the conversation, The Black Resilience in Colorado (BRIC) Fund proudly highlights the ongoing need for tangible support and investment for Black-led and Black-serving organizations. By providing resources and opportunities, we can ensure these institutions continue to thrive and contribute to the broader racial justice and equity movement. We invite you to join the BRIC Fund journey to collectively strengthen Black communities, BRIC by BRIC.

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