• 50 Years - A Million Thanks
Home About the Film Dance Timeline Behind the Dance Biographies Resources Lesson Plans Screensaver
Free to Dance Biographys
previous next
main bio page
Donald McKayle
Born: July 6, 1930
Occupation: dancer, choreographer, teacher
Inspired by a Pearl Primus performance, New York-born Donald McKayle began dancing in his senior year in high school, winning a scholarship to the New Dance Group. There he studied with Primus, Sophie Maslow, Jean Erdman, and others. He made his professional debut in 1948, and choreographed his first pieces with the New Dance Group when he was 18 years old. In 1951, he, along with Daniel Nagrin and others, founded the Contemporary Dance Group, which premiered McKayle's "Games" in 1951. Perhaps his best-known piece, "Games" juxtaposes the innocent imaginings of urban children with the real dangers they face. McKayle received a scholarship to the Martha Graham school and then joined her company from 1955-1956. In addition to his work with Graham, he danced with Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, and Charles Wiedman, among others. A free agent, McKayle danced as a guest artist with various companies, as well as in Broadway musicals.

But McKayle's central focus was always choreography, and though he was a well-known choreographer, he never maintained a permanent company. He choreographed for other companies or assembled dancers as he needed them for specific concert seasons; two popular examples are "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" (1959) and "District Storyville" (1962), both in the repertory of the Ailey company.

Successful in the worlds of dance and theater, McKayle created dances for concert stages, Broadway, television, and film. His Broadway credits include "Golden Boy" (1964), "I'm Solomon" (1969), "Raisin" (1974), and "Dr. Jazz" (1975); he was also one of the four choreographers for "Sophisticated Ladies" (1981). Beginning in 1963, McKayle choreographed for television programs about once a year, including THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW (1966-1967), THE BILL COSBY SPECIAL (1968), the 1970 OSCAR PRESENTATIONS, and the Marlo Thomas special FREE TO BE WITH YOU AND ME (1974). He created dances for films in THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970), Disney's BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971), and CHARLIE AND THE ANGEL (1972). In the field of popular music, he has choreographed stage acts for singers such as Harry Belafonte and Tina Turner.

McKayle's sensibilities were formed by the theatrical dance of the 1950s. A humanistic choreographer, he uses narratives and deals with potent emotion conveyed through dramatic characters. At times his stories are specific to the African-American experience, as in his protest dance "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," but his choreography is universal in its implications.

McKayle has taught at Bennington College, the Juilliard School, the American Dance Festival, and in Europe. His closest associations are with the repertory group at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center and with the School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts, to which he was appointed artistic director in 1975. As a prolific craftsman whose dances exist in many repertories and in many mediums, Donald McKayle has been one of the most influential African-American choreographers of the postwar era.

-- Kimberly Pittman

Emery, Lynne Fauley. BLACK DANCE FROM 1619 TO TODAY. 2nd rev. ed. Princeton, N.J., 1988.
Haskins, James. BLACK DANCE IN AMERICA. 1990.
Long, Richard. THE BLACK TRADITION IN AMERICAN DANCE. 1989.

Source Citation: "Donald McKayle." ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.