Since I first saw Ayodele Casel dance with her company in 2016, I’ve been an enthusiastic fan, and I’ve introduced many friends to her performances. She’s won a Bessie Award (one of dance’s highest honors), was a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Choreography for Funny Girl on Broadway, and was Artist in Residence at Harvard University. She’s performed at The White House, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, and Madison Square Garden. Despite all that, she’s still best known to aficionados of tap dancing. Let’s change that!
Ayodele’s goal is to revitalize tap dancing and get more people to appreciate the artform. As she told me, “My mission is to help return tap dancing to its rightful place in every conversation possible. We should be in ads on television, on billboards, and in conversations about social justice. I want tap dance to flourish and grow so that we don’t ever have a situation again where people say it’s dead.”
Her path to tap was not straightforward. Born in the Bronx and raised in Puerto Rico, Ayodele began her professional training at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“I was a theater major. I wanted to be an actor. That was my thing. I was obsessed with Angela Bassett; I had a 24 by 36 picture of her as Betty Shabazz on my wall.” Then she took a tap-dancing class. “I discovered this affinity and real love for tap dancing.”
The combination of theater background and tap-dance has led Ayodele to present tap in a unique way.
The combination of theater background and tap-dance has led Ayodele to present tap in a unique way. Her show Chasing Magic combines tap dance, live musicians (including Grammy Award-winning Latin Jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill), and Ayodele speaking directly with the audience. Part of the show is rehearsed, part improvised; all of it is rooted in identity, culture, and communication. Ayodele may call her show Chasing Magic, but I would call it Spreading Joy.
Ayodele wants audiences to experience tap dancing in an emotional way.
“I want folks to experience tap dance the way they experience a beautiful film. When I started tap dancing professionally, critics talked about technical proficiency. But for me, tap dancing has such a breadth of expression. Not everybody can tap dance, but I think they can understand growing up. They can understand influences, they can understand personal histories. If people feel really joyful when they see me, and they see the work that I do, then that is a life worth living.”
They said that I have clearly built my career, not just for myself, but for others.
One highlight of her career was becoming the 2023 recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. It’s an unrestricted prize of $75,000 given annually to risk-taking mid-career artists working in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theatre and the visual arts.
“I read the statement from the panelists about why they selected me for the award, and I started crying. They said that I have clearly built my career, not just for myself, but for others. They spoke about the importance of my work, and how I highlight the legacy of my ancestors through the work.”
This sharing and giving back covers a wide swathe of Ayodele’s career. One way of sharing has been through teaching.
“I’ve been teaching almost as long as I’ve been dancing. For a very long time, there was no or very little performance work for tap dancers. One of the ways I supported myself throughout my career was teaching. I also think there’s a natural sort of sharing of information that comes with the art form, sort of like oral tradition.”
Ayodele feels a deep connection to her students. She loves helping to make their paths a little bit easier than hers was, and seeing them succeed. “I also feel like it keeps me young; I get inspired by what they do.”
Her advice to young dancers is to trust their own voice.
Her advice to young dancers is to trust their own voice. “One of the things I say to all of them is that their identity is their superpower. They need to follow their own voice, to develop that, to trust it, to pay attention to how they’re feeling. Approach everything with openness and positivity, focus on what they want.”
At this stage in Ayodele’s career, she is performing less, but her influence is growing. She is Artist-in-Residence at Little Island (an outdoor performance venue on New York’s Hudson River). During the pandemic she was on the Artist Council for NY Pops Up! (a New York State initiative to jumpstart live performances in NYC). She is also co-director of Operation Tap (an online tap dance educational platform), and serves on the board of A BroaderWay Foundation (a youth arts leadership organization).
As Ayodele looks to the future, she envisions broadening her creative outlets to include more choreography, theater and film. But also, perhaps even more importantly, she wants to participate on boards and in institutions to help ensure inclusion, diversity, and the art of tap dancing.
“Artists are generally for hire. What you get – if you get it at all – it is determined by the people who run any given institution. If there aren’t people on those boards or in leadership positions that understand and see the value in the work you do, then most likely you’re not going to get a call.
I feel if I’m there, I can really expand the vision of institutions. I can help them see percussive dance as a worthy investment of their resources, whether it be space, money, and/or time. I think the way we do that is by stepping into leadership positions at institutions themselves. That’s something that I want to do more often.”
Ayodele has energy and drive, and spreads joy through her work. And if all that weren’t enough, she has been featured on a US Postal Service stamp celebrating tap dancing!
© Karen Gershowitz (9/6/23) Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Watch CBS New York’s spotlight on Ayodele.
Watch Ayodele perform on stage at New York City Center.
Read more about Ayodele’s US Postal Service stamp.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo & Bottom Photo © Tony Turner (2022). Provided by Ayodele and used with her permission. All Rights Reserved.
Middle Photo © Matthew Murphy. Provided by Ayodele and used with her permission. All Rights Reserved.