November 4, 2021

Community Spotlight: Breaking it Down with Creative Director, Lisa Engelken, of Breaking Barriers

Tai Bickham


Breaking Barriers is an immersive dance company that has been performing across Denver since 2018 in pop-up style events with a focus on building community within music and dance. The brainchild of Denverite, Lisa Engelken, and UK-based partner, Maren Ellermann, Breaking Barriers was formed to create a collective of performers in dance and music to come together in public forums, showcasing a variety of dance styles for the community in celebration of the art of movement. I was fortunate enough to connect with Lisa this fall prior to their most recent performance at Lawrence & Larimer, and wanted to learn more about Breaking Barriers and her love and inspiration for dance. 

black and white portrait shot of Lisa Engelken
Photography by Armando Geneyro 

Hi Lisa! Can you tell us a little bit about where you are from and how you started dancing? 

I’m from Denver, born and raised. I grew up in Cap Hill. I started dancing at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance as a kid all the way into adulthood. I still work closely with the organization and I’m an instructor to the Company. Cleo’s has been a home to me in so many ways, I’m so grateful for the community and influence it continues to have on my journey. Big love to my dance mom! 

What was the inspiration for you in creating Breaking Barriers? Did you feel there was something missing within the community that you wanted to fulfill? 

Breaking Barriers started as a project between myself and UK based producer, Maren Ellermann. We clicked while she was traveling in the states and dreamt up an immersive dance theatre show, combining elements of hip hop culture and contemporary dance theatre. The city of Denver really backed us up and the turnout was incredible, affirming we were filling a gap in the community. We are mos def not the only ones in Denver working to create mid-sized presenting opportunities for dance, there are many start up dance companies in Denver right now, and I think that is beautiful! Many of us choreographing and producing are working to bridge the gap by creating intimate spaces that are accessible to witness the arts outside of large theatres. 

I think what does make Breaking Barriers unique is the commitment to inclusivity and diversity as a platform to support Street and Social Dancers. Since the premiere in 2018, Breaking Barriers has evolved into a dance and event company. We stand rooted in our commitment to honor the traditions and lineage of these dance forms and hope to innovate the ways that dance and music can be a vessel for building community. 


group shot of dancers with breaking barriers
Photography by Armando Geneyro 

What are the age ranges of your participants in Breaking Barriers? 

Breaking Barriers has been unlimited to age. In 2019, we hosted a dance festival with workshops for dancers as young as 12 in the same space as professional adults. Our events have welcomed families and we believe in the power of communities being multigenerational and empowering folks of all ages. We have so much to learn from each other, from kids and from our elders. 

Where are performances typically held? 

All over! We have worked with the McNichols Building, with Invisible City, Movement Ritual among other spaces. We love having shows in a comfortable, social atmosphere where people can just be themselves. Breaking Barriers is the sister company with Backyard Sessions, which is a curated intimate performance series that I throw with my sister Elani, my best friend and poet Franklin Cruz along with Ryan Foo, who if you don’t know who he is, he is one of the most incredible humans to walk the planet! Backyard Sessions takes place in my parents backyard in Cap Hill and the magic of the event, I think, is that it is inside a home, which allows folks to drop the veil in a way and connect deeper into the community of each other, which is sometimes hard in more formal spaces. 

screenshot for backyard sessions series

Dance is an art form, but how else do you see dance functioning on a larger, collective scale? 

Yes, dance is an art form and also it is an innate reflection of culture and being human. Time and time again, folks share with me, “oh, I don’t have rhythm” or “I don’t dance, I can’t” and it’s unfortunate that especially in adulthood, we unlearn something that is such a part of our natural experience. I love working with adults of all ages in rediscovering their natural ability to express through movement. When you take out the performative aspect of dance and even the need to be cool and give folks permission to play inside the dance, it’s the most beautiful thing to witness, someone rediscovering their memory of movement. 


Why is having something like Breaking Barriers important for the community? 

I think we are important for the community because art and expression is meant to be shared and played with. Access and permission to participate is really what we are trying to provide for folks.

It’s also a movement that is meant to be collaborative and ebb and flow with the needs of the community. Last year, I expanded into spending my time between Denver and Los Angeles and seeing the level of access to dance in LA inspired me to do more pop-up style events in Denver and to make more regular community gatherings. Especially through COVID times, we are in an era of relearning to connect with each other. At the end of the day, that is what really matters to me with my work through Breaking Barriers, that there can be more space and permission to connect and enjoy each other. 

screenshot for promo video for rise

How has dance influenced/impacted your life? 

Dance has been my everything. It’s been my greatest teacher, my medicine, my enemy at times, and my container to grow inside. Right now, I’m growing more and more intrigued with dance as play rather than skill. I spent so many years training my ass off with the goal to be great and technical and successful. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in discipline and technique to my core and also...I have been loving stripping away the need to be impressive and performative. I think that’s my next chapter as a choreographer and producer, cultivating these spaces for professional dancers to find new layers of dance as play and pleasure. 

Is there a dancer or dance company that inspires your work as a dancer? 

I’m a huge fan of Bill T. Jones, his work is mad theatrical and always blows me away how he tells stories and uses acting and sets to create movie-like experiences for the stage. I’m also super inspired by my tribe around me. I saw this interview with Issa Rae one time where she was talking about building her art with her peers and her friends, that she reached to those around her rather than those above her. I think about that a lot when it comes to dancers who inspire me, my friends in Denver who I club with are some of the illest dancers I know. Yia, Boog, Typh, Mykail, Anna, Sam, to name a few. They inspire me. 

screenshot for breaking barriers recap

What is a saying, music verse, quote that has been a mantra in your creativity?  

Make to make. 

It reminds me that creativity just is. At the end of the day, the value in creativity can just be in experiencing the process of making it, not whether it’s good or worthy, those are opinions. Creativity is a sacred act and a day to day ritual. 

What’s on the horizon that you’re excited about? 

I am excited to be creating right now with an LA-based artist, Danzel Thompson-Stout. We are making a collaborative piece with Denver born, LA-based musician,  VI Basquiat (formerly known as SUR ELLZ), to be premiered at a festival in Tampa in January. I’m also excited to produce more events and to keep building with Denver, LA and beyond :) 

To learn more about Breaking Barriers, follow on Instagram. 

Instagram: @lisaengelken @breakingbarriersdanceco @backyard_sessions