Celebrating Donald McKayle: His Choreography Shed Light On Social Injustice

Photo by Esta McKayle, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

This past week, the University of California, Irvine, Etude Ensemble paid tribute to Donald McKayle, with a performance of Journey of the Heart: A Celebration of Works by Donald McKayle. The renowned choreographer created the student performance group in 1995 when he was an active professor in the dance program. The tribute included audience favorites, Death and Eros (2000), Crossing the Rubicon (2017) and Songs of the Disinherited (1972).

Choreographer, dancer and teacher Donald McKayle established a strong foothold for dancers of color by creating work that commented on social injustices, challenged racial norms and conveyed the black experience. As a member of the politically active dance collective New Dance Group in the late 1940s, he developed an emotionally rich choreographic style inspired by several dance techniques. Over the span of his six-decade career, he has choreographed more than 90 works.

Born in New York City in 1930, McKayle was introduced to dance as a teenager via a school dance club. After seeing Afro-Caribbean choreographer Pearl Primus perform at a local high school, he decided to pursue dance seriously. He auditioned for and received a scholarship to the NYC-based New Dance Group, where Primus taught, and began studying ballet, Afro-Caribbean and modern. This training gave McKayle both a diverse and technically sound movement style and a socially conscious approach to choreography.

At 19, he joined the Contemporary Dance Group—a small company directed by concert and Broadway choreographer Helen Tamiris. In a concert with fellow company members the next year, he premiered Games, a group dance about the hardships of growing up in an urban environment. The critical success of Games launched his choreographic career and secured his reputation as a socially minded artist.

Donald McKayle's Games (1951). Photo by W. Sorell, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

McKayle continued to choreograph and perform while studying with Martha Graham and postmodern choreographer Merce Cunningham. He set work on his own company, Donald McKayle and Company, and accepted commissions to choreograph for theater and television. In 1959, he created what is now considered his greatest work, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder—a heart-rending piece about the tragic lives of Southern chain-gang prisoners.

McKayle also had a successful career on Broadway. He performed in House of Flowers (1954) and West Side Story (1957) and began choreographing for Broadway in 1959, including Sophisticated Ladies (1981). He was nominated for five Tony Awards—four for best choreography and one for best direction of a musical (Raisin, 1974).

After teaching stints at the New Dance Group, Juilliard, Sarah Lawrence, Bard College and Bennington College, he joined the faculty at University of California, Irvine, in 1989 as a professor of dance. He retired from UCI in 2010, but was invited back last year as a professor emeritus of dance.

UC Irvine students in McKayle's Bittersweet Farewell. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of UC Irvine


McKayle has a diverse technical vocabulary at his disposal. From Martha Graham, he acquired the use of the torso—contracting, arching and twisting to punctuate emotion. Like Cunningham, McKayle often kept arm and leg movement independent of each other. Circular arm movements and fan kicks are common motifs in his choreography, as well as unison and pedestrian movement. Most of his works tell a story and are emotionally driven.

Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.

His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

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