Honoring the late Donald McKayle

Donald McKayle, dance legend.

Modern dance pioneer Donald McKayle, one of the first African American men to break through racial barriers via dance, has died. The iconic performer, choreographer, teacher, director and writer had a wide-ranging impact on the United States’ creative and cultural landscape. He died Friday night, according to his wife. He was 87 years old.

“Donald McKayle’s passing is truly the end of an era in American dance,” said University of California, Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman. “His passion for teaching and mentoring young, talented dancers remained unabated throughout his long life, and one of his greatest legacies is the hundreds of professional dancers now performing around the world.”

A UCI professor emeritus of dance who continued teaching until shortly before his death, McKayle created deeply socially conscious works that focused on the human condition and the African American experience. His seminal works “Games,” “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” “District Storyville” and “Songs of the Disinherited” are still performed worldwide.

McKayle was the first black man to both direct and choreograph major Broadway musicals, including the Tony Award-winning “Raisin” (1973) and “Sophisticated Ladies” (1981), and he worked extensively in television and film. He appeared with Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow and Merce Cunningham and in the Broadway landmark productions “House of Flowers” and “West Side Story,” in which he was, for a time, the production’s dance captain.

Born in Harlem, New York, McKayle began dancing during his senior year in high school after being inspired by a Pearl Primus performance. He won a scholarship to the New Dance Group, where he studied with Primus, Sophie Maslow, Jean Erdman and others. He made his professional dancing debut in 1948. During his seven-decade career, he danced or worked with virtually every well-known choreographer in the world.