Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder (1959), one of Donald McKayle's signature works,
depicts workers on a chain gang and powerfully explores oppression and injustice.


Donald McKayle, Photo courtesy of New York Public Library A 1963 photograph of Donald McKayle. Critic P.W. Manchester wrote that McKayle’s works, which often explore the African-American experience, “deal not with abstractions, but with people, living, laughing, suffering, bitter, protesting, superbly human beings.” (Photograph from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)


A pioneering African-American dancer, choreographer, and teacher, Donald McKayle (1931- ) was born in New York City and grew up in Harlem. He began his dance studies at the New Dance Group and made his professional debut in 1948, subsequently appearing with the companies of Anna Sokolow, Martha Graham, Jean Erdman, Mary Anthony, and Merce Cunningham. He also danced on Broadway and did extensive film and television work. McKayle's vibrant choreography, exemplified by such classics as Games (1951), Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder (1959), and District Storyville (1962), reveal both his interest in examining the human condition and his commitment to exploring African-American material. Donald McKayle and Company, which he founded in 1951 and directed until 1969, featured many outstanding African-American artists from Mary Hinkson and Carmen de Lavallade to Alvin Ailey. In 1974 he won an Emmy award for his work on Free to Be You and Me; the following year he received a Tony award for his staging of Raisin. A professor of dance at the University of California, Irvine, he was a longtime artistic mentor of the Limón Dance Company.

Learn more in Donald McKayle, an essay by Irlanda Esteli Jacinto.