Ayodele Casel: A Joyous and Nuanced Tap Journey

When we think of dance, rarely is dance considered a masculine pursuit. Though progress has been made in that respect with great dancers like Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Hines, and great hip hop artists, dance is still mostly reserved for women.

Tap is the one dance form where the male presence reigns supreme. There have been some great female tappers—Mable Lee, Elvera Sanchez, Bunny Briggs, Brenda Buffalino, Michelle Torrance, and Dormeshia Sumdry-Edwards. And, of course the great female tap artists from the Golden Age of Hollywood—Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, and Vera-Allen have made their mark.

Still, female tap artists get far less recognition than their male peers and are often expected to look glamorous and refined while their feet are performing incredible feats. Ayodele Casel is changing all that.

As one of the few Latina tap artists with international recognition, Ayodele Casel is forging a new path for female tap artists. For Ayodele, tap is more than a syncopated expression of steps from the tap dance lexicon, but a way for an artist to express a range of emotions, told along a narrative arch.

In this Women’s History Month, Ayodele Casel compels us to re-examine this truly American artform through a more expansive lens, celebrating the women who have given so much to this artform. May Ayodele’s star continue to shine!!

Fashion Reverie: Lets first begin with your first name, Ayodele, what does it mean?

Ayodele Casel: My name is from the Yoruba culture and in that language, it means joy has arrived. I love my name.

FR: In reference to your name, there is nothing more joyful than tap dancing. How did you come to tap dancing?

Ayodele Casel: My interest in tap dancing peaked when I was about 18 years old, my senior year in high school. I was taking a course on the history of the movies. I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in film in this course. And that was the first time I had really paid attention to tap dancing.

I was so impressed with what Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire were doing on the screen that I started trying to teach myself how to tap, imitating what Fred and Ginger were doing. I had varying degrees of success and it brought me great joy to be trying to do what they were doing in movies.

While I was an acting major at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU), during my sophomore year, we had to take a movement class. I had the choice of taking Tai Chi or tap. Of course, I enrolled in the tap class and fell in love with the training immediately. Naturally, we were doing very basic things, but I still loved it.

By luck, one of my best friends was friend with Baakari Wilder who was a freshman at the time at NYU in the acting department. Baakari is an incredible tap dancer. And through that friend I was introduced to Baakari because we were both tap dancers.

Now, at that time, I was the best tap dancer in my class, which is not really saying much because I was in a beginner’s class. Baakari and me rented a studio to start working together and in that dance studio I realized that tap was an artform. Baakari was already a master tapper and he taught so much about the artform and the history of tap.

FR: How did realize you could turn tap dancing into a professional career?

Ayodele Casel: During the mid-90s diversity and inclusion were not buzz works in the performing arts. However, when I became interested in tap dancing, tap was having a resurgence. Savion Glover was one of the major forces behind this resurgence. Gregory Hines also used his celebrity to shine a light on tap dancing.

That said; Baakari invited to come see him in the show “Bring in the Noise, Bring the Funk” while that show was still at the Public Theatre. I still didn’t have a reference point for young people of color taking up any space in theatre. When I attended the show, I witnessed Savion Glover dancing so authentically and joyfully, I just knew I wanted to immerse myself in tap and be surrounded by the genre.

My professional career came out of joy of learning and performing the artform. I would practice incessantly. If Savion was doing a tap jam at the Nuyorican Café, I would go and participate. At the time, there were not a lot of women getting into the jam with men. But, I am from the Bronx, so I was not intimidated.

About two years into my deep immersion into the artform, Savion started a group called Not Your Ordinary Tappers (NOT), and he asked me to join. This was Savion’s first professional venture after he won the Tony Award for “Bring in the Noise, Bring the Funk.” I toured with NOT for about three years.

FR: When people think about tap dancing, they rarely think of women tap dancing and certainly not Latina women tap dancing. What challenges have you experienced around this misperception?

Ayodele Casel: In the mid-90s there were practically no roles for female tap dancers. Most of the tap-dancing jobs for women required you to be in high heels and fishnet stockings. I was not interested in that.

That said; I was the only woman in NOT and very few people had seen women tap dance with the intensity that I brought to NOT. I was told that I danced like a man, but I knew I wasn’t an anomaly. This prompted me to research and learn about women of color that were tap dancing along side men in the 1930s and 40s.

FR: You trained at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the William Esper Studio as an actor. How do you combine tap dancing with acting?

Ayodele Casel: Dance is a form of storytelling. You have a clear point of view and there must be an arch to your storytelling through your performance and your interpretation. I am really interested in making dance theatrical and accessible in ways that go beyond just dance audiences.

I performed a piece entitled “Diary of a Tap Dancer.” In that work, I wanted to reveal the people behind tap dancing. Tap is very joyous, but sometimes it is seen as a gimmicky element to a production; an energetic, virtuosic dance expression. With “Diary of a Tap Dancer,” I wanted to create a piece where the tap artists got to speak about who they are and how they arrived at where they were in the artform.

FR: How did “While I Have the Floor,” your one-woman show at the Spoleto Festival come about?

Ayodele Casel: That show was borne out of a seven-minute piece I did for Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center. That seven-minute work was me talking about my roots, my passion for tap dancing and my fear of having poured my life into this artform and no one even knowing I existed. Which was much like the female tap dancers I had researched who had worked so hard at the craft, but many died without being acknowledged for their art.

The work was very well received and when I did the work at Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center, I was asked if I had a longer version of the piece. Then, I was asked to perform the seven-minute piece at Broadway for Hillary Clinton. I began to flush out the seven-minute show into a longer more extensive work which I later became “While I Have the Floor” that I later performed at Spoleto.

FR: Could you talk about your best performing experience, and your worst? 

Ayodele Casel: My best performing experience is performing “While I Have the Floor” at the Spoleto Festival. I was so nervous leading up to performing at Spoleto. And writing this piece was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to tap into a lot of personal and emotional stuff to be able to write this piece. I really exposed myself in this work.

I became ill with everything from sinus infections to the flu and loss of voice right before I performed at Spoleto. However, when I got to Spoleto magically all my illnesses disappeared and “While I Have the Floor” was well received. I performed six performances of the work and people came back several times to see it. I still get emails from people praising the work.

My worst experiences have been performing at events where people don’t really appreciate what you are doing and in the end all you get is a cold meal. Fortunately, I have had many of those.

FR: How do sustain yourself financially from your tap dancing?

Ayodele Casel: Like a lot of dancers I maintain myself financially by teaching. I acquire work as a dance educator and teach tap at dance conventions and workshops. I have been fortunate in the last three years mainly performing and choreographing which has kept be very busy.

Choreography by Ayodele Casel

FR: You have been a frequent collaborator with New York City Center. Could you talk about that?Ayodele Casel: They have really adopted me. I first started performing at City Center as an artist in their Encore! Series. In 2016, I was a member of their artists’ board for Encores!. I also choreographed “Really Rosie” for City Center Encores! in 2017.

I was involved in a dance festival with them recently and I am now participating in City Center on the Move. I just love them. And they are champions of tap dancing!!

FR: With the advance of the marley floor, tap dancing is taking a beating. Could you talk about that?

Ayodele Casel: One of things I have done to deal with the absence of wood floors in some dance studios is open my own studio with wood floors. The Original Tap House is in a brownstone in the Bronx. The space is a full floor where I practice and is open to other tap dancers to come and practice and hold rehearsals.

FR: Is tap dancing growing in the US? 

Ayodele Casel: Yes, it is. The resurgence is due to being included more in musical theatre. Tap dancing is magic. You can have a show that has nothing to do with tap dancing and you can insert a tap routine in the show and that routine will bring the house down every single time. Remember, tap is joyous and not limited by age and size. Everybody wants to be a tap dancer. People are just curious about it.

All Photos courtesy of Ayodele Casel/Michael Higgins

FR: What’s next for you?Ayodele Casel: I am excited about creating work for other tap artists. I am so excited about the young people that are doing tap right now and they are bringing a richness and depth that is amazing.

I have the privilege of working and creating work for so many of them. The artform is going to do well in their hands.

—William S. Gooch

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