Irvine, Ca. — 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.
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.
McKayle was born in New York City on July 6, 1930, and grew up in a racially mixed East Harlem community of African-American, Puerto Rican, and Jewish immigrants. He was the second child of a middle class, immigrant family of Jamaican descent. His father worked as a maintenance man at the Copacabana nightclub before becoming a mechanic while his mother worked as a medical assistant.
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.
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.