Modern dance icon Donald McKayle, who taught and mentored UCI dance students for decades, has passed away. Michelle Kim / UC Irvine

Irvine, Calif., April 9, 2018 — 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.

Donald McKayle in 1963, courtesy of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

A pillar of arts education 

A UCI professor for several decades, McKayle taught and mentored students until his final days. His original choreography “Death and Eros” was performed at Dance Visions this February.

“There was so much joy in the room at all times,” said Bret Yamanaka, McKayle’s rehearsal director and choreographic assistant at UCI. “He led with laughter and joy and song. The studio and students were his life. He would light up when he was teaching. He was so quick and lively – even to the end.”

McKayle joined the UCI faculty in 1989 and was honored in 2000 with the UCI Medal, the university’s highest honor. He was the Claire Trevor Professor of Dance and artistic director of UCI’s Etude Ensemble, which he founded in 1995.

“The world knew Donald as a groundbreaking dancer and choreographer; we at UCI knew him as a great teacher and mentor,” said Stephen Barker, dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “Donald was a great choreographer because he was a great human being. We celebrate our opportunity to have known and worked with one of the giants of American dance for such a wonderfully long time.”

McKayle also served on the faculty at the Juilliard School, Bennington College, Bard College, the American Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. He held an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Juilliard.

His contributions to the world of dance have earned him a citation as “one of America’s irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Library of Congress, along with a medal from the Kennedy Center as a “master of African American choreography.” His choreography garnered two Emmy Award nominations, an NAACP Image Award and five Tony Award nominations.

At an impromptu memorial on the UCI campus, many remembered McKayle’s work and his teaching.

“He loved all his dancers, of all different sizes and colors,” said dance major Edgar Aguirre. “We students feel lucky to have had the experiences we did with him. I feel strongly his legacy will not end, since there are so many people who can carry it forward. He helped you go from being a student to an artist. He believed in you.”

McKayle is survived by his wife, Lea McKayle; his daughters, Gabrielle and Liane; his son, Guy; and his granddaughter Tyler. Funeral services are pending. A memorial will be held later this spring. Donations can be made to UCI’s Donald McKayle Endowment for Modern Dance or to the Donald Cohen McKayle Trust (44708 N. 22nd St., New River, AZ 85087), dedicated to the preservation of his work.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit

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