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Donald McKayle Dies At Age 87

Donald McKayle in 1963, via Dance Magazine Archives

Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook filled with tributes to dance icon Donald McKayle, who passed away at age 87 on Saturday.

Revered for his passion and humanism, McKayle powerfully showcased the depth of the human condition through dance. He not only broke barriers as the first black man to direct and choreograph a Broadway show, he brought the black experience to the stage, highlighting social injustices as well as the struggles and triumphs he witnessed around him.


The legendary choreographer created more than 70 modern dance works during his life, including 1959's groundbreaking Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder about the frustrations and aspirations of a chain gang in the American South. He was nominated for five Tony Awards for his work on Broadway in musicals including Sophisticated Ladies and Raisin, and he also made his mark on TV and in films like The Jazz Singer.

McKayle began dancing as a teenager, studying under Pearl Primus and Sophie Maslow at the politically-active collective New Dance Group. He made his choreographic debut at age 18, co-founded the Contemporary Dance Group with Danial Nagrin at age 21, and started dancing for Martha Graham at age 25. He later went on to dance with Anna Sokolow and Charles Weidman.

Most recently, he was beloved as a teacher, encouraging students everywhere from Jacob's Pillow to the Juilliard School to dig deeper inside themselves. Although he officially retired as a professor from the University of California Irvine in 2010, he returned to the dance department annually to choreograph and teach.

When Dance Magazine interviewed him for our Teacher's Wisdom column in 2008, he told writer Rose Eichenbaum:

"You have to have a focus. I work with dancers on movement ideas but I always stress intention: What are you dancing about? Why are you doing it the way you're doing it? What are you bringing to this movement? I want them to think about these things and come back to me with real answers."

We honored him with a Dance Magazine Award in 2005, writing, "McKayle's choreography, humanism and teaching have left a giant footprint on the dance world." McKayle will be sorely missed, but his impact will never leave us.

Donald McKayle performing with Mary Hinkson in 1961. Photo by Van Lund, via DM Archives

In Memoriam
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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"Law & Order: SVU" has dominated the crime show genre for 21 seasons with its famous "ripped from the headlines" strategy of taking plot inspiration from real-life crimes.

So viewers would be forgiven for assuming that the new storyline following the son of Mariska Hargitay's character into dance class originated in the news cycle. After all, the mainstream media widely covered the reaction to Lara Spencer's faux pas on "Good Morning America" in August, when she made fun of Prince George for taking ballet class.

But it turns out, the storyline was actually the idea of the 9-year-old actor, Ryan Buggle, who plays Hargitay's son. And he came up with it before Spencer ever giggled at the word ballet.

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As a dietitian specializing in dance nutrition, the most common DM flooding my inbox is "How can I drop pounds (specifically from body fat) and gain muscle?"

The short answer? Not happening.

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