Teacher's Wisdom: Donald McKayle

July 29, 2008

Donald McKayle embodies the American modern dance experience. Having been mentored by or performed with Pearl Primus, Martha Graham, and Anna Sokolow, among others, McKayle emerged as one of the country’s most dynamic dancers and prolific choreographers. He has created more than 80 works, including his celebrated classic
Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder. He has earned multiple Tony nominations for his choreography on Broadway shows such as Golden Boy, Raisin, and Sophisticated Ladies. His latest work, Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City, was recently premiered by Kansas City Ballet. He is currently on faculty at the University of California at Irvine, where Rose Eichenbaum caught up with him.

You’ve been active as a choreographer and educator for 60 years. How have you sustained such a strong presence?

Dance has been completely meaningful to me and therefore I give back to it constantly. I live in the moment and at the same time remember where I came from. This gives me a broad outlook with an eye to the future. And I’m always working cross-generationally with people of all ages—young students with ambition about where they’re going, as well as seasoned performers who bring the trajectory of the past with them.

What do you think is the main ingredient for growth as an artist?

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.

How do you teach choreography?

Again, I always start with questions. I give my students basic exercises. I ask them to write down their aesthetic as of this moment—what they feel about their art, their craft, and how they experience it. I ask them to keep a daily journal and note if they are amplifying what they wrote earlier or if they’ve found something new that is changing how they view their art. So I have them engaged in constant internal inquiry. Then I ask them to use their craft to create their own movement signature. Working this way frees them from the preconceived tyranny of dance technique—the preoccupation with things like “How can I get my leg higher?”

Is it possible to teach qualities that are regarded as inherent, such as rhythm and sensuousness?

Yes, you can. It’s always a blessing when a student comes in with these innate abilities. But for some it’s like learning a foreign language. For these students I keep working with them until they get it. I use different methods and never give up on anyone.

How do you teach rhythm?

I tell them it’s not the sound that they’re making with their feet, arms, or body. It’s how the body moves through space. How one moves is largely determined by the natural orchestration of the body’s rhythm and pulse. I want dancers to feel rhythms and counter rhythms internally and let those inspire their movement.

I don’t use counts or what I call “digits.” Counting can be a crutch, a distraction that interferes with the feeling process. I speak the rhythm: ba da da de, ba da da de. If they are with me—speaking the rhythm—they don’t have time to count and are more inclined to internalize the rhythms like a new language.

How do you encourage students to move with a sense of weight?

Weight is vital to performance intention. You have to go to the ends of the spectrum: light and weighted. If your physical type is the opposite of either of these poles, you have to work technically to capture that opposite, maybe elusive quality. I give exercises that use breath to capture both lightness and weight, breath that carves the musculature and evokes a broad range of dynamics.

I read that Pearl Primus was responsible for your becoming a choreographer.

Yes, and she is still very much with me in spirit. I was in high school when I first saw her dance. She was like a vision, a beautiful sculpture. When she began to move her shoulders, her legs, and her bracelets began to jangle, my reaction was like a chemical explosion. After that I just knew I had to dance and choreograph. If I hadn’t gone to her concert that night I might have had an entirely different career.

How much do you rely on spoken language to communicate with students?

A great deal. I like to speak about what I’m thinking or just talk as I’m working. However, what I say to one student may not communicate to another. Or what I see coming back to me in movement might require that I use different words to get my point across. The difficulty comes when students misinterpret or don’t understand what I’m trying to do and their feelings get hurt. How do you deal with that? It’s one of the challenges of being a teacher.