Donald McKayle was a pioneering dancer and choreographer who became one of the first Black men in modern dance to break the race barrier. McKayle passed away last weekend after a long career in his later life as a dance instructor and professor.
McKayle was born July 6, 1930 in New York, and raised in East Harlem. He discovered dance late in life as a high school student after seeing dance legend Pearl Primus take the stage. McKayle auditioned for the New Dance Group in 1947, and was accepted despite not having formal training. While there, he flourished and began choreographing his own dance numbers.
Now armed with training, the 18-year-old McKayle crafted his own solo piece, “Saturday’s Child,” which set dance to the poetry of Countee Cullen in 1948. However, it was his groundbreaking “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” that would break open his career to the larger dance world. This would continue a theme in McKayle’s work of depicting the Black American experience and addressing social ills via dance.
As he did with “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” McKayle sought to pair African dance and rhythms to the work he constructed. With over 70 modern dance works under his belt, it was fitting he became the first Black man to direct and choreograph two major Broadway productions in the Best Musical Tony Award-winning “Raisin” in 1973, and Tony Award-winning play “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981.
In his later career, McKayle worked as a professor and instructor at several universities, most notably UC Irvine as its Claire Trevor Professor of Dance. He also was nominated for two Emmy Awards, five Tony Awards, and a NAACP Image Award.
He is survived by is wife, Lea McKayle, three adult children, and a grandchild.
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