AYODELE CASEL HAS CEMENTED HER LEGACY — BUT THERE IS MUCH MORE TO HER THAN JUST A FLASHY PAIR OF SHOES

By Vincent Lyn

Photo credit: Patrick Randak

“I was getting weary of audiences just commenting on the virtuosity of our footwork, but nothing else,” she says. “I wanted to humanize tap dancers and reveal who we are as people, as human beings, and why we do what we do.”

Ayodele Casel: Dance Magazine — July 13, 2020

Ayodele Casel gracing the cover of Dance Magazine — August 2020

Ayodele Casel is an American actress, tap dancer and choreographer. She was raised in Puerto Rico, and derived inspiration for her tap style from salsa music. While in college, she studied with Baakari Wilder and Charles Goddertz. She became the first, and remains the only woman to be a member of Savion Glover’s ‘Not Your Ordinary Tappers’. Savion Glover would be instrumental in helping Casel launch her career.

One of The New York Times’ “Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019”, Ayodele Casel has been named a 2019–2020 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Harvard University where she will be writing her next theatrical work. Ayodele recently collaborated with legendary jazz composer Arturo O’Farill premiering a show at the Joyce Theatre to sold out audiences and “making a triumphant debut as a leader there” (The New York Times) in September 2019. Hailed by the legendary Gregory Hines as “one of the top young tap dancers in the world,” and by the New York Times as “A tap dancer of unquestionable radiance”, Casel has steadfastly become an internationally sought after artist and powerful voice for the art form. And to give you an idea of the extraordinary artistry read some of the reviews she’s received:

“The effervescent Ms. Casel has been honing her expertise in tap dance since the 1990s. Her collaboration with the pianist and composer Mr. O’Farrill at the Joyce Theater was too long in coming — she should have been commissioned years earlier — but it was a spectacular display of technique and heart. Ms. Casel danced with the skill and spirit she is known for, but she also paid homage to the female tap dancers who came before her. She’s extraordinary.” — Gia Kourlas, The New York Times

“A radiant and eloquent storyteller with words, Casel also makes her case with tap, its movement and sound a form of evidence, punctuation and declaration that turns her elevating message into an all-out sermon.” — BAY STATE BANNER

“Ayodele Casel has brought joy back into the Joyce Theater. Making a triumphant debut as a leader there on Tuesday, this tap dancer radiated joy and personified it. Joy, unsurprisingly, is the meaning of her name.” The New York Times

“Ayodele Casel, a down-to-earth storyteller whose relaxed poise can belie the exceptional quickness and needlepoint intricacy of her footwork.” — The New Yorker

“A tap dancer of fine grained musicianship. Dancing or talking, she’s a grounded charmer.”- Brian Seibert, The New Yorker

““She’s illuminating, she’s electric, she’s mesmerizing,” Mr. Mattocks said. “And that’s before she even starts dancing.”- Aaron Mattocks

“A tap dancer of unquestionable radiance..” -Gia Kourlas, The New York Times

“Ayodele is one of the best tap dancers in the world, a phenomenal performer who just blasts onto the stage like a cannon.” -Jeanine Tesori , Tony Award winning composer

“She can tell a story with her feet like very few people can. She’s as good as it gets.” — Michael Mayer, Tony Award winning director

“Thank you New York Times for introducing us to the extraordinary Ayodele Casel, from now on I’m following her everywhere she goes.”- Sarah Jessica Parker

Yet with all of these accolades Casel a woman of color with mixed cultural heritages, educated, intelligent, multi-talented and bilingual. It might seem for many that her rise to stardom and the pinnacle celebrity status was an easy ride. She got all the breaks, knew the right people and that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. It’s the farthest thing from the truth. I wanted to dig deep and get to the heart of what makes her tick. And like most successful artists it comes down to one main ingredient, discipline. Discipline has been key in creating and producing her form of artwork, design, skill and mindset. One must be disciplined with their time, energy and focus. The Oxford dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.” I personally believe discipline is one of the most important characteristics an artist needs. It is very easy for life to take over your’e creating time. Looking at Casel’s career and her rise to being the top in her field is very apparent.

Ayodele Casel a Capezio Athlete

The following is an interview I conducted with Ayodele:

1. How did you begin your love of dance?

I think my love of dance began with watching Janet Jackson. Rhythm Nation was all the rage in my sophomore year in high school. I remember being obsessed with everything Janet and even proclaiming that I’d be one of her dancers in the future. However, my senior year in H.S. I was introduced to the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and I was absolutely enthralled with how they moved their feet. I was able to take a formal tap class at the age of 19, at the start of my second year at NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts. I was hooked on the basics. I felt like I was living the dream of being Ginger Rogers. About a year into that class I met someone at school who was immersed in the tap culture and community and through spending that tap time with him and practicing obsessively I became tethered to tap dancing at all times.

2. Who were your greatest influences?

My greatest influences were Gregory Hines. Not only did I recognize him as an incredibly powerful tap dancer and performer but I had the great fortune of being in his presence and observing how he treated people with such generosity, his constant advocacy of the form, and his commitment to exploring all aspects of his creative expression. I have also been greatly influenced by the Black women tap dancers who were often ignored and almost written out of history. I have dedicated over 20 years of my career to speaking their names in an effort to repair the injustice of their erasure. Jeni LeGon, Louise Madison, Juanita Pitts, Lois Bright, to name a few. They are worthy of remembering.

3. Why as artists do you feel the pressures of feeling inadequate, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence seem to become ingrained in the souls of the majority of artists struggling to achieve some sort of success?

I think being an artist is a noble and brave endeavor. I will speak for myself and say that one of my greatest strengths as an artist is my sensitivity, my empathy, my desire to be truthful, and my humanity. I am a human first and the art grows out of those experiences. Life can be challenging and I think when you are just trying to navigate regular ol life AND simultaneously leaving yourself available to share who you are openly it is a very vulnerable action. So maybe the vulnerability is the thing that can leave one open to self criticism or the criticisms of others, comparisons. For me, the more connected I became to the why of my practice, the less other people’s opinions have mattered.

4. What are your passions?

I love engaging with young people. I see myself in their beginning journeys and I remember the generosity shared with me and I feel committed to share with young people in the same way.

5. What do you account for being such a highly disciplined person?

My desire to get it right. To improve. To honor the form. To chase after that feeling of the “aha!” moment, where it all makes sense and you see the practice paying off. Also, for me, it feels great to develop and sharpen your skills.

6. As a woman of color and a female tap dancer. Tell me about the personal struggles you encountered on your rise to being a successful artist.

When I first started tap dancing, a lot of the focus was on young male performers. People didn’t seem so interested in seeing women do the same thing with equal skill. It just didn’t seem like it was valued. I, however, didn’t let that discourage me. I kept showing up to all the spaces I could. Even the spaces where the doors were closed, I hung around often enough until they were opened. The challenges the art form has faced sadly hasn’t been limited to gender. Tap dancing was becoming marginalized again in performance, rehearsal, and commercial spaces. Oftentimes, the people with the power to present either ignored tap dancing altogether or imposed their own ignorant ideas on what the art form is about and so rather than let it grow in these spaces they would rather ignore it altogether. I have spent a good majority of my time as a tap dancer educating and challenging stereotypes.

7. With the current political climate in the U.S do you feel it’s made it more difficult for the African American voice to be heard?

I have never been so happy in my life to see a change of administration in this country. It is not a mystery to anyone who has been paying attention that there are people and systems that would love nothing better than to silence our voices and lives. However, I also have loved to see that we will not back down nor be silenced.

8. How can we as a society change to become more united?

Everyone says to bring more love in to our interactions. I agree with that but I also we need to bring empathy, compassion, and EDUCATION. I find that ignorance, in all its forms, has prevented people from really seeing one another and from understanding the root and catalysts of their current lives. They don’t know the HOW or the WHY things are the way they are and it’s because they are very ignorant to the history of the society they live in.

9. Have you ever thought of going into politics?

I never had an interest in going into politics until I saw Michael Moore’s show on Broadway, “The Terms of My Surrender”. I left there feeling totally inspired by the power of our individual actions to shift and change society and the world for the better. I remember saying out loud, “I could run for local office!”. Having said that, I don’t have any intentions yet of doing that. I do, however, like to be as involved as I can in shifting things for the better in my own arts community.

10. Do you have any Humanitarian aspirations?

I have aspirations of doing all I can do- however limited- to making the world a better place. I have always been a very empathetic and caring person and seeing the need in so many spaces can be overwhelming but I know that the work must be done. I organized a fundraiser for my family and the people in my town in Rincon, PR during Hurricane Maria. It was an overwhelming and devastating time but to see the impact, however small, was fulfilling.

11. To be gracing a US postage stamp. This usually happens when one is dead commemorating one’s legacy. How does it make you feel?

I feel extremely honored and proud to be representing the art of tap dance on the 2021 USPS Forever Stamp. I fell in love with this art form the second I saw it and have dedicated myself to it for life the second I understood that I was part of a beautiful and powerful legacy. This art form was born from Black people in this country who have innovated time and time again out of their need to communicate everything from joy to resistance, in the face of oppression. An artists’ ascension to success isn’t always guaranteed but I consider success being able to look back at my journey and feel pride and joy for my experiences, growth, and impact. The stamp is a beautiful affirmation.

Ayodele Casel is featured far right on USPS Postal Service 2021 planned stamp releases — Tap Dance, which will celebrate the uniquely American contribution to world dance.
Here I am with Tayari Casel — An extremely proud Father

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Security Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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Vincent Lyn

Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)