These days, as I delve deep into my past, I remember…

At 15, I was longing to dance but my parents would not permit it. Why? I suspect it was fear; they were from the “don’t run, you’ll fall; don’t swim, you’ll drown” generation. So I secretly applied for a summer job in the kitchen of a music and dance camp in the mountains so I could dance when I wasn’t washing dishes. The teacher was someone I’d seen perform, a tall, supple man named Donald McKayle who seemed to belong to both earth and air, grounded but able to fly, which is what I longed to do. It was daring for me to apply—either for the kitchen job or as a student—so I kept it from my parents; I especially kept from them that this man was “a Negro.”

I knew quality when I saw it, and he was quality—body, mind and spirit. For ten full weeks he would be teaching at Deerwood, a music and dance camp in the Adirondack Mountains, and even if I only got to sit in on the occasional class between meals, it was worth it to me, so I showed up for the job interview to work in the kitchen.

“Why don’t you just apply as a student?” the Director asked reasonably. I think I mumbled, “My parents won’t let me…” and then my whole story poured out. He stamped his foot angrily, accepted me as a full-time student and said he would come to my house and talk to them. “Where do you live? Don’t tell them I’m coming, but make sure they are home on Sunday at 11, okay?”

And there he was, exactly on time, a stranger at the door on a mission. My parents were shocked, to say the least, and when he said, “Do you know your daughter offered to work in our kitchen so that she could study dance?” they all but hung their heads.

After that, they could hardly say No.

Once there, in the fragrant Adirondack woods on the shores of Saranac Lake, my body woke up to being danced several hours a day—ballet, modern, African—even though I was a beginner in classes with experienced dancers my own age. I tried not to act humiliated (even though I was) and worked hard to learn quickly. Donald was kind, no doubt knowing full well how it felt to not belong, and I never missed a single class.

In off hours we were introduced to ethnic dance, from Indian mudras to African polyrhythms, and in this I did well as my body took to the indigenous rhythms easily. Astonishing myself and finding where I belonged I came alive, and soared! Every day I blessed my opportunity to learn from this man, and I shudder to think what I might have missed had I obeyed my frightened parents.

Donny and the kitchen staff were the only people of color at Deerwood, and I liked to help out in the kitchen after meals and hang with them, but it was not encouraged. When a cello student fell in love with one of the kitchen staff it caused a current of ruckus all over camp until Donny smoothed things over, and they became more discreet; but everyone was more careful after that, and any such liaisons went underground.

Love, in that gorgeous place surrounded by lakes and mountains with music in the air night and day was, of course, everywhere and the students began to pair off by the second week. One violin player in the orchestra fixed his sights on me, but he wasn’t my type, and anyhow I needed to stay focussed on learning the complicated moves of Martha Graham technique. John was flatteringly persistent and quite good looking, but I was there to dance! I figured that once the summer was over he would settle into college life anyway—he’d been accepted at Harvard—so for the summer we could just be friends.

I tell this story because it took another three years for him to finally let go, and it took going to one of Donny’s performances in the city together for both of us to understand why.

John and I went to see a production of “Games,” an early work based on children’s sidewalk games in the streets of New York’s tenement neighborhoods. Marbles and Ringolevio, Mother-May-I? and chasing games are all played out onstage until one boy calls out, “Chickee, the cops!” and the children scatter out of sight, all but one who runs back to retrieve a ball. A shot rings out, the boy falls, the stage grows dim, the songs go silent and the curtain falls on the spotlighted boy lying dead in the street.

I fell apart. Sobbing uncontrollably, I collapsed into John’s arms and repeated over and over, “I want to be good!”

I will never forget the moment of finally knowing that.

“And you think you can’t be good with me, is that it?” he asked sadly, edging me away from the crowd. The only honest answer I could give him was a nod of the head “yes.” I finally understood what was missing between us, the very same thing that was there for me with Donny. I had no name for it then, but now I would call it Soul.’ It was a sense of deep family, of belonging to a world that encompassed everything, not only the obvious stuff. It was what I felt when I danced, that I could never express in words.

John was brilliant, but he had no idea what I was talking about, and perhaps it was that very quality of ‘knowing’ in me that attracted him to me. It took me three years to understand that I was not responsible for giving him—or anyone—something of myself that was too subtle to even name, unless I chose to or knew how to. Especially as I didn’t really understand what that feeling was! I just felt it.

Whatever it was, I had recognized it in Donny the first time I saw him dance, and it was only much later that I could put a name to it:


Thank you, Donny, for that life-changing production of “Games” that broke my heart, gave me my freedom, and clarified my mind. It also, by instilling my passion for racial justice, made me understand just what we white folks were missing by not knowing people from the cultures of the African diaspora.

Thank you, my friend and teacher for showing me your language of the body in motion—in beautiful motion—and for your soul that went deep and embraced me. Oh, if only white folks understood that what you carry is what we are desperate for, but are terrified of. Actually, we may understand it perfectly well, but reject it because of its power! That may be the scariest thing of all.

During his long and successful career, Donald McKayle used his art form like brass knuckles in a velvet glove. It packed a wallop while it opened hearts to a shared humanity, despite the history of abduction and slavery, despite torture and shaming, lynching and deprivation.

For over half a century, his work bore witness to survival under great odds, and inherent genius in the face of racism and slavery. Donny used dance and music to move the soul, to tell the Black story—the human story—showcasing the ritual and art forms of the African diaspora. He was truly a jewel in our midst; some now might say he was an extraterrestrial, for surely his energy and his output were larger than earth-life!

I ran into him only one more time, half a century later, in California where he was teaching a Master Class in the Gym at Cal. Half the students were people of color, and the combinations he taught were even more complex than the ones I once had to learn, but the students did just fine. It was all so familiar, and yet so very different. The world had changed.

I sat in the bleachers watching, wondering if I should go up and greet him when class was over. I stayed for awhile afterwards as the crowd descended upon him, and then I left the gym slowly, wondering if he would notice me and look my way. I doubt he did.

In any case, of course he would not remember me. The past was almost half a century before, and gone. I knew him decades ago, and he had worked all over the world with many hundreds of other dancers since then. He would never know how deeply he had affected me, and who knows how many of those others?

I unlocked my bike slowly, and cycled home through Berkeley traffic to my family who would by now all be home waiting for me, and the chicken roasting in the oven would be ready for its last-minute garnish of crushed lemon peel and garlic.

Donald McKayle is gone now. So is John.

I could be next…

But the living still must eat…