Remembering Donald McKayle

May 2, 2018

Donald McKayle was a legend in dance, with a long list of accolades, awards and accomplishments well-documented after his recent passing. But those of us who were lucky enough to be his students, either in a classroom or rehearsal studio, know he displayed his greatest talent in his role of master teacher.

A dance teacher like no other, he could draw creative expression and physical determination out of his students they didn’t know they had access to. He saw it inside them, and he drew it out with grace, command and clarity, as if it were something he simply expected. His approach was never demeaning or condescending; he knew you could do it, only you hadn’t tried it yet.

He used to say to the young dancers in his undergraduate performing group, the UCI Etude Ensemble, while rehearsing a particularly challenging section: “I know…Now, do it again and jump higher,” all the while smiling and singing to them.

So as a dancer, that’s just what you did. You performed. You performed to the level that he asked…or even higher, surprising yourself and him by achieving levels you never thought possible.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of dancers around the world who were lucky enough to work with him and many have stories they’d like to share. These are not necessarily stories of a man who won Tonys or broke through walls in the world of modern dance, but stories of their teacher, Donald McKayle.

I am one of them. I met Mr. McKayle in 2004 when I was a graduate student in dance at the University of California, Irvine. I was his teaching assistant for two years while studying at UCI and, upon graduation, he asked me to begin restaging his works around the country.

He was also the man who performed the wedding ceremony for my husband and me. I’ll never forget when I casually asked him in the hallway of the dance department if he would go online to become an ordained minister to officiate my marriage. He turned to me and said, “Amy Sennett, you continually inspire and challenge me.”

But the opposite was true. It’s overwhelming to me that he trusted me with his work. He used to tell me, “You go…go and teach them. Teach them the steps. Teach them the dance, and then I’ll come and sprinkle a lil Donald here and there.”

Mr. McKayle sent me to Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Co. in 2008, to restage Games, to be performed at the 75th anniversary of American Dance Festival at the Kennedy Center. When a white girl from Montana showed up at the rehearsal studios, Cleo might have been just a bit worried about what I might lose in translation. But Mr. McKayle’s songs were inside me. His movement, intention and emotion were there, too—all ready to teach.

For that gift, I am eternally grateful. Thank you, Donald. I can never repay you, but I can share the following recollections from some of the other students you inspired equally over the years:

-Amy Sennett-Starner, Dance, Yoga and Pilates Teacher and Stager of Mr. McKayle’s wo

I first met Mr. McKayle in 1999, while performing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I vividly remember everyone running to hug him and calling him “Donnie, Donnie!” As he began his piece Danger Run, I immediately found myself connected to his rhythms and movement vocabulary. We reconnected at UC Irvine in 2002, where I was given the opportunity to perform his legendary solo, Angelitos Negros around the world and at the International Association of Blacks in Dance conference. I still hear the Shaker Life clapping rhythms of “Ba Ba MmmBa Ba, Ba Ba Mmm Ba Ba” in my sleep! Two of my favorite dances he created for me were Midnight Dancer and I’ve Known Rivers, and his choreographic process was always a rigorous delight. We would work together privately in the UC Irvine loft dance studio for four hours at a time and when I thought I could not take another step, he said, “Try something for me love,” and we would continue the creating together, until it was finished. In reference to choreography he would laugh and say, “I start a sentence, and you finish it. It’s wonderful!” We traveled overseas together where I performed and staged his dances and I became the principal interpreter of his work. I accompanied him to receive his honorary Doctorate at Juilliard and have traveled alone to stage pieces such as Games, Songs of the Disinherited, Uprooted, House of Tears and many more on major dance companies. As his muse, I promise to do everything in my power to maintain his legacy and the integrity of his work. My home is the keeper of his beautiful white piano for my lovely daughter Victoria, who called him PaPa McKayle. We will sing loudly and play music in his memory and we will miss him each and every day, more than words can possibly express. Forever in our broken hearts, we love you forever!

-Stephanie Powell, Professor in Dance, Long Beach City College

Donny was a passive preacher, and I became his disciple. He told me to call him “Donny” not “Donald.” To say he had “soul” would be an understatement. He embodied the human condition. He gave me a reason to dance. He was completely engaged with his students. Back then, Donny physically touched you. To this day, I have a muscle memory of exactly where he placed his hand on my body. I could feel the energy flow. He made me sense from where, and more importantly WHY I was meant to move. It wasn’t about shape, or even alignment in any sort of academic way. He used to say, “Don’t look in the mirror—you’re not there.”

-Douglas Nielsen, Professor, University of Arizona, School of Dance

Donald McKayle was the tallest dancer I had ever seen. His long arms and legs could fill a studio or stage in one swoop. His voice, too, could fill a room, as could his smile. I was a young, not-quite woman just leaving her teens, studying with Donald and Bella Lewitzky at the newly formed California Institute of the Arts in southern California. I was excited to learn all about these things called modern dance, improvisation, and composition. Donald was teaching our modern dance technique class in Theater II, a black box performance space fully equipped with hanging lighting instruments. In the year before the campus opened, a large earthquake had happened in the area and aftershocks were still common. Suddenly, in the middle of class, a big earthquake started shaking the theater, sending the lighting instruments swinging over our heads and the floor rolling under our feet. We all ran outside the theater and out of the building. Although I’m a native Californian raised on fault lines, this was very upsetting. I began to cry. As if by magic, there was Donald, as tall and steady as a giant sequoia tree, beside me. Along arm lightly encircled my shoulders, and that smile was there too. His presence was immense, calming, warm and steady. Throughout my professional growing up years and my becoming a choreographer, Donald’s presence has always been a steadying force. He often came to my concerts, whether I was in a beautiful proscenium theater or down in the subway tunnels doing a site-specific project. His presence, warmth, generosity and discerning artist’s eye have continued to guide me for forty-eight years. You see, our greatest teachers show us the way, far beyond the classroom. By their actions they tell us: This is how great artists behave. This is how great artists show up for others, offer guidance, and show genuine interest in their students, forever. Even now, after his passing, I hold Donald’s presence within me, in my own forever. Because he was my professional father, then I must be his professional daughter. I accept my task, just like he showed me: Be present. Be present for others. Be warm. Be warm to others. Be genuine. Be kind. Be there. Be here. Be an artist.

-Loretta Livingston, Professor of Dance, UCI and LA Choreographer

My very first experience seeing dance was on PBS at the age of eleven. I remember sitting at home on a weekday afternoon after school, watching what I now know to be a documentary of Mr. Donald McKayle setting his Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Little did I know, that day would be the seed that would start me on a path to be a dancer. I wouldn’t even begin my first dance class until four years later and little did I know that I would be working with Mr. McKayle fifteen years later dancing in the same company, working with the same man, doing the same ballet I saw when I was a little boy sitting on the floor watching an after school special on PBS. Mr. McKayle imprinted on me and set me on a path to becoming a dancer when I didn’t even know him. I was lucky to have danced several of his ballets and blessed to have had the opportunity to have him set a solo on me and honored to be in his presence. I will truly, forever be grateful for his artistry and his mentorship and his contribution and legacy in creating the extraordinary male dancer.

-Bernard H. Gaddis, Founder/Artistic Director, Contemporary West Dance Theatre

Back in 1966, I had the honor to be a principal dancer in Donald McKayle’s dance company called Black New World. We performed two of Donnie’s classic pieces, District Storyville and Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder. While rehearing for District, I was so excited doing and learning the dance, I would do the wrong steps. I remember Donnie once said to me, “Trina, you were doing the step incorrectly, but you sure made it look like everyone else did it wrong!”

-Trina Parks, Actress, Vocalist, Choreographer, Principal Dancer and Dance Instructor

He was not only a giant of a man and artist but one of the most humanly aware and enlightened children of God. He was openly available and honestly engaging with everyone. He put everyone at ease sharing openly and generously of his knowledge and his experience. His gift of creating, teaching and sharing sprang from the well of love and humanity that was constantly nurtured by his unique vision of mankind. When he reset Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder on the dancers of the Black Dance Project here in Paris and later Rainbow Suite on my company, we reside not only in the presence of pure genius but in the presence of the epitome of what God undoubtedly wanted all men to be. Wise, sensitive, generous, loving and most of all constantly accessible and giving. He inspired with just his presence, his humor, his vast knowledge, his humanity and of course with his sometimes wicked tongue.

-Rick Odums, Director, Center International de Danse

I loved how succinct, HONEST and powerful his words were. One afternoon, after seeing a showing of a student choreographer who performed a lyrical/contemporary piece, Donald McKayle simply said, “You’re trying to be literal in dance, you are using the wrong medium.” BAM! He was passionate about keeping the art in dance. I have quoted those words many times since and I will remember them always.

-Amanda Legbeti Nora, UCI, 2005 MFA in Dance

I interviewed Mr. McKayle when I first arrived as a graduate student at UCI because I knew he had left the larger commercial market for higher education and more artistic freedom. I was looking for the same kinds of things with my advanced study. As fate would have it and in fulfilling my graduate thesis requirements, I had the honor of recreating the original choreography of West Side Story at UCI under his mentorship. One night, Mr. McKayle attended rehearsal to view and guide my work in which we were rehearsing the ballet in Act II and he gathered the entire cast around him on the floor as if he were Santa Claus at Christmas. All these eager young faces were seeking his guidance and approval of their artistic effort and honoring the work in the appropriate way, including me. I asked him something along these lines and he took my hand in his, and said this ballet is the dream of unity of mankind. Everyone loving each other and living together in harmony and peace. With a tear in his eye, he said, “You have done me proud. You have done them proud, as he gestured to the cast and you have certainly done Jerry (meaning Jerome Robbins) proud.” I will never forget knowing that I had not only recreated this masterpiece appropriately, but that I had met his personal standard and artistic memory. I have been forever changed by Donald McKayle and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

-Tracey Bonner, UCI, 2007 MFA in Dance, BFA Dance Coordinator at Northern Kentucky University

Donald McKayle was the type of teacher and mentor who made you want to work harder, feel bigger, be more creative, and dance smarter, and that was within the first minute of his warm up! I’ll never forget leaving my first class with him surprised that even the muscles in my hands felt completely spent. It’s his hands that I’ll remember so well: the ones that could articulate and undulate independently of each other; the long fingers that would determinately point at the dancer whose technique was about to be pushed and molded to new heights; the way his hands could completely envelop that same dancer in a congratulatory or, if necessary, a consolatory hug. Of course, none who danced with him could ever forget how clearly he would use his hands, feet, and whatever else necessary to clap out his rhythms while in the studio. They were the hands that marked up my thesis work left right and center, and that guided me to hone myself into the teacher and choreographer I am today. I will miss those hands so dearly.

-Julie Parker Harlan, UCI, 2008 MFA in Dance

After my first performance during my freshman year at UCI, Mr. McKayle walked up to me and said, “I wish we could bottle you up, so we could all have a sip of you.” I’ll never forget this moment as it was one of the most unique compliments I have ever received in my life. At the end of every school year, Mr. McKayle would invite his students from the UCI Etude Ensemble over to his house and cook for us. It was always a real treat because we would get to hear stories about the beginnings of his career; such as his time dancing for Martha Graham. He loved his students and always encouraged us to perform from our hearts. I remember him saying once, “Don’t create movement and then try to exude an emotion, start with the emotion and the movement will come.”

Briana Bowie, Dancer, Acrobat, Aerialist at The Beatles, LOVE by Cirque du Soleil

One of my favorite memories of Donald was seeing him set Songs of the Disinherited on my own students. Students that he had actually led me to (because when Donald McKayle recommends you for a job, you get the job). After having my own experience with Mr. McKayle as a student, it was incredible to see another generation of dancers absorb his magic and change before my eyes. The joy and sorrow, the challenging questions, the captivating rhythms—seeing young dancers discover all this with his thoughtful guidance and wisdom was something I’ll never forget. He created work that changed everyone it touched.

-Lauren Hall, UCI, 2007 MFA in Dance, and Director of Dance at Brentwood School

I was creating a dance choreography and wanted to experiment with some new ideas. I struggled with whether or not I should push the boundaries of my own creative process because it was different from the dances that were usually accepted in a particular show. And, I was worried about whether other people would like it or not. Donald mentored me. He said, “I don’t care what other people think, I like the work. If you like the work, that is really all that matters. If they don’t accept the choreography for their show, present it somewhere else.” In that moment, I realized that I had to have a deep belief in myself and be willing to not allow the judgement of others interfere in the creative process in order to fully realize a choreographic vision. His advice released my own inhibitions and gave me freedom to create.

-Kara Jhalak Miller, Choreographer, Dancer, Associate Professor of Dance at University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance

In 2003, I found myself at UC Irvine for grad school. And there was Mr. McKayle. When I took his class—a blend of rhythm and traditional modern technique—he would chide me for what he called my “flick” or “throw away” technique, a style of release I had adopted after my time in New York. I think he was trying ever so gently to remind me that I wasn’t better than others and that completing things still mattered. I remember so clearly his reverence for Bharatanatyam, Flamenco and virtually all forms of dance. Mr. McKayle is most likely one of the best humans I have ever known. I don’t claim to be one of his favorites, but I do claim to have gained immeasurably from knowing him. We will miss you, Donald.

-Sadie Weinberg, Professor in San Diego, CA and Artistic Director, LITVAK Dance

After receiving several emails of acceptance to many schools my prayers were answered when I received a phone call for my acceptance to study with the great Donald McKayle as an MFA student of dance at the University of California, Irvine. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1 is the rhythm that will forever live with me thanks to his teachings. He saw movement as music and music as movement all while telling a story. When he taught his fingers spoke to me beyond the room. His singing would stop me in my tracks, always placing a smile on my face. His imagery and description shared not only the movement but the spirit and soul of his vision. Never have I ever been so inspired. There are no words for what he whole-heartedly gave me and the world alike. Thank you for all of the gifts that you gave me. You have eternally changed me. You allowed me to see movement as what it truly is: The power of life. I will carry your teachings with me and continue to plant the seeds you have shared. You will greatly be missed Donald McKayle—a true King of the dance.

-Martha L. Z. Pamintuan, MFA, Dancer, Choreographer, & Professor

It was never about the counts, or how high your legs were, or whether you were absolutely perfect technically. It was about being an authentic performer, embracing musicality, and telling a story through dance. He taught us to always be human when performing. There was so much heart, soul, and song in his process. I will never forget his impeccable rhythms. No one ever will.

-Sharon Kung, Dancer, Oakland Ballet Co & Dance Theatre of San Francisco

I will never forget the rehearsal I wasn’t getting his Rainbow solo right and then he stopped the music and said “Marc, you know what to do. Just do it.” Whenever I don’t know what I’m doing or I doubt myself, I hear his voice telling me I know what to do. I’m a very lucky man to have been Mr. McKayle’s student in the most formative years of my dance training and early adulthood. I also never really learned how to contract my chest and core until I began training with Mr. McKayle. I will always remember him and carry his lessons with me as I teach others.

-Marc Nuñez, Gotham Dance Theater, Director

It’s difficult to put into words the impact Donald McKayle had on me. Everyone knows about his amazing achievements as a dancer and choreographer but his journey to that success is what changed everything for me. As a black man in the 1950s, Mr. McKayle fought through racial barriers to be able to perform and showcase his artistry. His fight to pursue his passion is unbelievable. He knew how important it was for him to tell his stories, and how there was value in that. He never told me these stories directly, he told them to my parents. My parents were not supportive in my initial decision to pursue a career in dance. I talked to them and expressed the joy I felt when I would perform but they just saw it as a hobby with no future. My parents are very practical and with me being the first in my family to go to college, they thought I might be wasting an opportunity. My parents’ perception of dance as a career forever changed the day they met Mr. McKayle. While performing with Mr. McKayle’s repertory dance ensemble, Etudes, we happened to be close to my parent’s house, so the company, along with Mr McKayle, came to my house for lunch. Naturally, my parents and Mr. McKayle sat down and talked for quite some time. They exchanged stories, but more importantly Mr. McKayle shared how dance saved him, and how dance has more value than any monetary object. That afternoon Mr. McKayle helped my parents understand why dance is important and that they shouldn’t be afraid of me pursuing a career in it. Mr. McKayle gave me courage. The courage to pursue my dreams and make what I want with them. Because of his encouraging spirit I had the opportunity to perform nationally and internationally, choreograph around the world, and now teach at a university where I can help students like he helped me. I thank God for putting Mr. McKayle in my life. He gave me the guidance that I needed to be where I am today. Thank you Mr. McKayle for your guidance. I promise to keep your legacy alive and instill your wisdom in the future generations. Rest in Peace amigo. I will see you soon.

-Omar Olivas, Dance Instructor, Department of Theater and Dance, Southern Illinois University

In my experience with the legendary dancer, choreographer and teacher Donald McKayle aka, Papa McKayle, I noticed how he was present in every milestone in my dance journey. He was present since the first time I met him at CalArts in 1983. I demonstrated for him while I was a student at the Ailey school, he came to my performance with PHILADANCO in New York, I performed in his masterpiece Games with Lula Washington Dance Theater, he served as the chair on my thesis committee at UCI, produced my choreographic work in Dance Visions, hired me to substitute advanced modern for him while he was on sabbatical, and encouraged me as a choreographer and teacher. I am forever grateful for everything he has done for me and for our dance community at large. One day I told him he was the Godfather of Dance—he just laughed, and started singing!

-Erin Landry, Professor of Dance, Cypress College