A Conversation with Ayodele Casel
Written by Corey Ruzicano
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
September 29, 2016
Ayodele Casel is one of those people you can point to and say, that is one of the most exceptional humans I know. Fierce and funny, disciplined and brave, Ayodele is quick-footed and lion-hearted as she takes on the world. Whether it’s on tap dancing, safety tips, how to play video games on her couch at home or active, hopeful ways to look at the world, she teaches me monumental new things with every conversation, class, or performance. Ayodele upholds a level of excellence across the board in art and in heart, a reminder of what we can all strive for.
Corey Ruzicano: You have this new, extraordinary piece coming up, so I wanted to start out by talking about storytelling. You’re a dancer and an educator and a leader and an actress and a photographer, you’re now running this space, Original Tap House, you’re bursting with talents, and I’m wondering how all these different roles inform one another, and how they’ve shaped the way you communicate and the way you tell your story.
Ayodele Casel: Thank you. Yeah, it’s such a great question because I’m not sure I’ve ever actually verbalized how they all intersect. I suppose that there is a throughline, right? There has to be. I was always into telling stories. I think kids are so naturally engaged with their imagination. I knew I wanted to be an actress since I was nine. I knew then: that’s what I wanted to do. So everything that I experienced from that point was with the knowledge that one day I was going to be an actress.
CR: That filter was always there?
AC: Exactly, it was always through that filter. If I played with my friends, I was practicing. If I watched a film I would think, how are they doing that? How does that work? I was always processing in that kind of a way. I was also a very introverted person, so I think it was also easy for me to kind of play and imagine and pretend in my own space and time. This is kind of related to the piece that I’m doing. When I was eighteen, I discovered classic films and I was really, really into them – analyzing who the directors were, what kind of stories they liked to tell, who they worked with consistently, what kind of storyteller was Hitchcock, what kind of films Cary Grant always did… and so I knew that who I was watching was masterful at what they were doing. I’d like to think that I had, at an early age, a sense for quality. When I started tap dancing in college, I was fortunate enough to meet someone who was an incredible tap dancer. I was fortunate to always have a high level of people around me and for some reason, I just always sought that. I always wanted to surround myself with the best. Having danced with some of, I feel like, the best tap dancers to grace the earth, you can’t help but be filled with that. It just happens naturally; their greatness rubs off on you. At least you hope it does. You know what’s good, there’s a high standard, a bar that you’re always reaching for. That discipline, you can’t escape that. I feel like I have carried that through every aspect of my life. When I became interested in photography, I wanted to look at the best images out there, the best photographers. Even with this space that Torya Beard and I have created here, we wanted to have an elegant space for artists to create. The through line would be integrity and quality, that’s what I’ve tried to draw through everything. But I think I may have lost what your initial question was about storytelling.
CR: Not at all. I’m really interested in this question of, how do you tell your own story? Especially for people who are used to expressing themselves through different lenses and with different mediums, how do those vocabularies start to inform the very nature of how you talk about yourself? And then I feel like there’s the tendency or the opportunity to step into the narrative you create for yourself, from that. When you have so many different intersecting interests, how do they come together and shape the way you communicate?
AC: You know, it’s so interesting because I feel like I have just recently tried to articulate my story. For many years, I was just dancing it. There are no words, and I was dancing for myself a lot of the time. And with acting, you’re saying words but they aren’t yours. Even now as I struggle to find the words…this piece has been a really great gift and tool for me. For so many years I had always either been acting or dancing and I wanted to combine the two.
I had actually explored doing my own show about fifteen years ago, and it was a concert, I had a ten-piece Latin band behind me, and basically I wanted to give voices to my influences. Like my grandfather, I grew up with him and I started listening to Latin music because of him and then I wanted to honor my great-grandmother, because I was so fortunate to know my great-grandparents. I had these really vivid memories of them and I loved their spirits, they were so humble, and I wanted to share that with people. Not a lot of people tell their story and I want to hear everybody’s story. I have wanted to also really give voice to these women tap dancers that I had done as much research as I could, because there’s such little information on them and I’ve had such a great career; I’ve been so blessed that sometimes I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t take it for granted that I’m so fortunate and I don’t like it when people just think they’re the origins of something. One of the things that I’m so connected to and proud of is that I am a part of a larger picture, not just of my family but of this art form, and I think that it’s important to honor the people that put in good blood, sweat, and tears before you so that you could safely step on the stage or express yourself or be recognized.
CR: Absolutely. Your piece is called “While I Have the Floor.” What are some of the floors or platforms that have been given to you or that you’ve had to fight for along the way? How has artistic mentorship played a role in your life?
AC: I feel like it’s important to be very mindful of gratitude. Not always on purpose, but we take things for granted – where you live, being able-bodied, getting to go to college. My mom was really proud that I attended college because she didn’t get to go. For her to have given me that space and encouragement, and to have that vision for myself, right there, that’s one more leg up than what she had. It starts there. And actually, I started dancing in college, so really it was like a double blessing! To meet this guy who was a freshman who said, you like tap, I like tap, I’ll teach you for free. It was just a sharing, there’s no monetary value you can put on that. People take private lessons all the time, I give them all the time, but here I was and he was freely giving his knowledge and sharing his love with me, so that was another leg up for me. When I started tap dancing, there were women in my generation who wanted to dance, but I felt like they were very intimidated by the energy that the men were giving off. They were very confident and virtuosic in improv circles – and I just wanted to dance so badly it didn’t really matter to me. I didn’t see gender in that way, I just thought, we’re here, and I want to do that, so I’m gonna put myself in that circle. As far as having to fight for something, one of my favorite shows and influences was Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. I was so inspired by that show and also so incredibly disheartened by the fact that there weren’t any female roles for tap dancers. Ann Duquesnay was the singer/actress, but the dancing was all done by men at the time and there were no conceivable openings for women. How do you react to that, if you don’t see yourself fitting in the picture? Do you quit? Do you say, screw it? I thought, I’m gonna make space. It didn’t deter me, I just kept dancing.
So when Savion [Glover] first created this group, Not Ordinary Tappers, which was my first big, professional group thing that I did, I was the only woman. That gave me a huge platform. At the time, it wasn’t like, I am woman, hear me roar, I stand for all women, watch out! I just was happy to be there. I didn’t realize it was a thing for me to be the only woman, until people would interview us or they would interview me and say, I didn’t even know women tap-danced. I thought, I get that my presence must feel like an anomaly, but surely I can’t be the only one that’s ever done this. There was Brenda Bufalino, she’s one of our pioneers, and Roxane Butterfly who’s maybe five years my senior, but in terms of that circle of men and people of color doing it…I was kind of alone, especially in New York, in this particular environment. So I thought, clearly there’s a platform here, for me to really speak on this. My first solo show, the one I was telling you about, I called out these same women that I’m calling out in this piece now. It was important to me then to say their names. Nobody was saying their names. The first time I saw Lois Bright, my jaw dropped to the ground, because we knew about Lon Chaney, and Chuck Greene, and Buster Brown, and Jimmy Slyde; they were all alive at that time, but nobody had ever said: Lois Bright, Juanita Pitts, Louise Madison, the Whitman Sisters. And I get it, I know that it comes up when it comes up and sometimes the focus just isn’t on any particular gender but I just thought, isn’t anyone talking about these women?
CR: Yeah, whose stories do you think we’re missing – either the stories that you name in this piece or stories you’ve encountered in life that you want to lift?
AC: I want to know so much about Lois Bright. Cholly Atkins writes in his book that she was a beautiful, wonderful dancer and his right-hand person for when he would choreograph. That’s a small piece of what we know of her and we know that she was gorgeous and an incredible, flashy, and athletic tap dancer because of the ONE dance clip in “Hi-De-Ho”. She was married to one of the brothers that she danced with and there isn’t much more on her. I don’t know when she started dancing, I don’t know why she quit. I just want to know and see so much more. Louise Madison, there’s just a small short paragraph on her in this dissertation I discovered by Cheryl Willis and it says that she could eat Gregory Hines alive.
CR: Wow, what a thing to be remembered by!
AC: I know, I was reading it and just thought, oh my god, where is she? Where’s the rest of it? They say she may have fallen in with drugs, and then she essentially just fell off the face of the earth.
CR: The way so many women’s stories do.
AC: Exactly. We know more about the Whitman Sisters because they were producers and they had their own show, their own Vaudeville act and they were very successful in that circuit, but there’s no footage on them, not in all my twenty plus years of dancing have I seen anything because it doesn’t exist. We’re missing all of their stories, we’re missing all of their voices and I don’t want to be that. I just feel like it would devolve dance and the lineage, so I just feel like it’s really important to write it down.
CR: How does it change the relationship you have to what kind of story you want to leave behind?
AC: I’ll tell you, I’ve been wanting to do this kind of thing since the year 2000 and what really kind of woke me up was a tap history book that was recently published. There’s this section on me and as iI was reading it and its depiction of other women it wasn’t that I was expecting a full story, the book isn’t about me, it’s about a tap dance history, and I’m thankful to even be mentioned in the lineage, but what really bothered me about this particular version of my life that’s now in print forever and ever, amen, is that it reads: “and she stopped for two years.” Period. And then on to the next section. It’s three pages and it ends with that, and I just thought, oh my god this is not my story. This will not define me in print. God forbid something happens to me tomorrow and that’s what’s left. I don’t want to let other people define what that is, because I know what a loss it was to me not to have those other voices and stories of these other women.
CR: It’s that same need to “see it to be it” idea, what Jeanine Tesori said in her Tony speech, what we always talk about, how deeply important and revolutionary it is to see representations of people like you doing what you want to do, being who you want to be. Especially when you don’t fit into what’s been presented to you as the canon of whatever that field is, being yourself in that is a political act.
AC: Yeah, it absolutely is. I think that, that is one of the wonderful things that tap dance has given me: it teaches you to recognize your individuality from the get-go. In improvisation, you cannot be anybody else. If you aren’t being yourself, you aren’t being authentic, you aren’t being interesting, you aren’t honoring the dance that you’re doing, you aren’t honoring the art form and most importantly, you aren’t honoring yourself because we all have our own unique and wonderful point of view. If you’re paying attention, you learn very quickly to start honing some authenticity.
CR: And I love that word “attention” – you’ve said that before to me about making conscious choices about what you pay attention to –
AC: Yes, what you put your attention on grows stronger.
CR: Yes, I love that idea and that language.
AC: That’s how I try to live my life, very intentionally aware of your energy, your point of view, how you see things, positively or negatively, and if they’re negative, you’re going to attract a lot of crap in your life. When I was in my twenties, I read a book called The Four Agreements and it really changed my life because I thought, oh I don’t have to be mad at little things, I don’t have to take things personally. I really started to shift internally how I was reacting. I witnessed a lot of violence as a child and I wasn’t a violent kid, but…well, actually I was going to say that I wasn’t a violent kid, but I used to fight all the time! They used to call me Muhammad Ali, because I was constantly fighting boys, so actually, I was taking that out on the playground. But I was a very good student, I got straight A’s…
CR: And you were also in fight club.
CR: It’s so interesting, because female aggression is something that’s so little talked of and so seldom represented, especially for young women growing up.
AC: And it’s judged if it is.
CR: Right, it’s only the Wicked Stepmothers.
AC: Exactly. The book was life-changing because it felt like in my personal life I’d released a lot of tension of anger and lack of control, I felt much happier and at peace. If you cut me off while driving, clearly you’re having a bad day, that doesn’t reflect on me, but then I started to going to William Esper Acting Studio and doing Meisner work, and you have to take everything personally in your work. I realized, doing that training, that, though I’d become a more benevolent, graceful human, I wasn’t honoring the full spectrum of my feelings and emotions. When we’d be doing scene work and you’re supposed to really take in the other person and my partner would be dismissive, and just let it go and Bill Esper would say, how do you feel about it? And it took that for me to actually go back and honor and exercise the full spectrum of all my emotions. Maybe because I was a little bit older, I had the maturity to actually apply that concept into my life with me. I meet everybody now with as much positivity as I can muster, I’m very even-tempered, but I’m from the Bronx. I could beat you down if I wanted to. I don’t have to access that all the time, I cultivate a very peaceful existence because that is something great to put my attention on but I do think it’s important for young girls to know that it’s okay to have that strength. It’s really valuable because, for any human you’re going to face things, things that will want to beat you down, but especially for girls we are constantly judged for how we exhibit strength. She’s a bitch, why’s she so angry? We’re judged on a different scale but I say, don’t apologize for who you are.
Same thing for the presidential elections, I just find it so interesting that all of a sudden everyone cares so passionately about a candidate’s honesty and whether or not they lie – and I’m not saying that’s not an important thing on it’s own, but all of a sudden it’s her honesty and her purity that’s under scrutiny and I call hypocrisy.
CR: I can only imagine how many more hurdles she’s had to jump than her male counterparts – of course she’s more of a politician, she’s survived this long.
AC: Yes, that’s the other thing, I read these comments that say: she just feels like “it’s her turn,” she just wants people to vote for her because “it’s her turn,” you know what? YES. It is her turn; she’s held just about every imaginable office. It just makes sense that if you start your life, just like I did at nine years old with the intent of being an actress and joining art programs and going to school for it and doing community theater, and training and this and that and the other thing, then now, yes. If I audition for something now, I want to get it because it’s my turn, I’ve been at this a long time. Don’t tell me that the audacity of me wanting it to be my turn is a bad thing. That double standard is killing me.
CR: It’s just equity versus equality, it’s not an equal chance at the goal if they playing fields up until that point haven’t been equal.
AC: And I believe the parallel to be absolutely true about tap dancing for men and women. How is that we had someone like Louise Madison, who had the reputation of being able to eat Gregory Hines alive, but we don’t know anything about her? And I get it, we’ve evolved, society has evolved, then in the fifties and the forties, it was different especially for a black woman, but let’s just call it what it is – there is a definite difference in how the genders have been treated. I’ve had such a breeze comparatively, it’s not a complaint because I’ve been so lucky and that’s not lost on me, however, even after I’d worked a lot, agents would call me and say, they’re looking for a tap dancer for a commercial…and I’d say, so, you called me…? And they’d say, well they want a man. They would call me to get the name of a male tap dancer. That was then and it’s gotten so much better, even from twenty years ago. I’m so happy to have witnessed the evolution of it, because, as I said, when I started there weren’t a lot of women getting in the ring with the fellas.
CR: Except for Muhammad Ali!
AC: Exactly, I was in there, and a lot of women tap dancers would tell me how momentous it was for them to see me up there because it would show them that they could do it. Now I’m looking at so many women flourish, Michelle Dorrance just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, there are so many female dancers who are working at high levels, so I hope that they are aware.
CR: And that their history begins to get chronicled in the way that it should.
AC: And then, only because I’m obsessed with it, that they then recognize that they’re standing on the shoulders of many, many others.
CR: Definitely, and with that in mind, how have you come to define the word “community” for yourself? Has that influenced the genesis of this Tap House you’re creating?
AC: Yeah, so many of my friends have been talking a lot lately about that idea of finding your tribe. Because sometimes you land in something that looks like a community and sounds like a community, talks like a community, but really is not a community. It’s really confusing, especially when you’re the newbie, but in my old, wise age.
You know, in July, when I was doing the piece at City Center, the reason I was so moved, that it had such an impact on me was because I think it was the first time in my entire career that I felt so supported by fellow artists and the people around me in these last few years. It’s the first time. It felt really good to have people genuinely cheering for you and encouraging you, being moved and expressing that freely, not withholding their compliments and experience, it was an incredible feeling.
CR: I wonder if that’s because of the people or because you’ve developed a sense of what you’re looking for, or both maybe.
AC: Yeah, I think it all goes back to that community. I got to a point where it’s not about what you have or your status in the field; I now try to keep people around who are great people. That wasn’t always the case. I was trying to fit the circle in the square or the square in the circle. There was a lot of conflict. I mean, I wasn’t fighting anymore! But when you grow up and you aren’t fighting anymore, if you haven’t resolved that way to deal with conflict then you do it internally. And I finally stopped doing that, I stopped trying to fit into people that weren’t my tribe. I’ve definitely cultivated that and I’m much happier for it.
CR: Absolutely, so then tell me about the Tap House! What are your dreams for this space?
AC: Yes, Original Tap House! Torya and I, my little lady love, several years ago we were walking – we used to live on the Upper West Side – so we would walk to the river and were talking about how we wanted to have a space, a building where artists could come to collaborate and make work, we wanted to commission work, we want them to take risks and, as a tap dancer, it’s really important to me to actually have space to rehearse, because in New York a lot of those spaces are closing down.
AC: Yeah, we used to have Fazil’s – rest in peace Fazil’s, I love them so much – it was this rickety, rickety studio with holes everywhere but it was amazing. It had wood floors and when I first started it was eight dollars an hour and it was so cheap and there was no pretense. When you were going in there you were going in there to work, you weren’t going in there to get cast or get discovered or hob nob, you were there to work out yourself. Since that space closed, there have been others. We used to go to Chelsea Studios, but now they no longer accept tap dancers. So we’ve slowly and systematically been shut out of all rental and rehearsal spaces in New York City, and that pisses me off. I think if Gregory were alive, he would be banging down doors. It’s important to me for tap dancers to have a space to come and work and not be harassed – you’re tapping, you’re going to scuff the wood, that’s just what happens.
So Tap House is all of these things. It’s a space for artists to create, collaborate, in a space that is positive and not oppressive, and elegant at the same time. You should feel as free as possible to create. The big dream is the four-floor building, I have my sights set on one in particular, but we did not want to wait for that. So often we wait and tomorrow is not guaranteed, so what can we do now, while you’re still breathing? I’m a real believer that if I wake up and have breath in my body it’s another chance to do something great. So we thought, what can we do now? We don’t have the million dollar building and we don’t have the time to sit down and write grants which is a job in and of itself. So we thought, what we have now is this space. It’s kind of like the shell, like the body, what matters is what happens inside. Right now, this is the shell, but really what it is, is the program, the idea that you can come here, if you have a play that you’ve written and you’re too scared to invest five hundred dollars in a day to have a reading, you can come here, invite twenty people of your choosing, it looks great and you get to share something. And that is the environment we’re creating. Like when we had Johan Thomas come here, we presented this artist who’s been doing oil on canvas for many, many years, but only for himself because he was hesitant to share his art with the public. So over brunch Torya said why don’t you just present at Tap House? Get some cheese and grapes and wine and we’ll just do it. Just get the ball rolling.
CR: That’s what Van Gogh did.
AC: Yeah! So he committed to it! He was really nervous, and that’s real, it’s such a vulnerable position to be in. But he came here, forty-five people came, and he sold about eighty percent of his work that afternoon! He didn’t anticipate such interest and I feel like he released something in himself. That is what we want to do for artists. When you talk about opening up the floor, I feel like that is what Jeanine Tesori did for me. She said, you have this idea, here’s a platform for you to do it and I think it’s really important to have people support you in that way. So that kind of energy? That’s my community. If you’re on board with that, with helping us be the absolute best we can be while we’re on this earth, then I’m good with you.
Ayodele Casel began her professional training at NYU Tisch and is a graduate of The William Esper Studio. Hailed by Gregory Hines as “one of the top young tap dancers in the world,” Ms. Casel has created commissions for Harlem Stage, the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series, and Lincoln Center. Ms. Casel co-choreographed and was featured on the PBS special The Rodgers & Hart Story. Other TV/Film: Third Watch, Law & Order, The Jamie Foxx Show, Bojangles, and Savion Glover’s Nu York. She has performed with Gregory Hines, Jazz Tap Ensemble, and American Tap Dance Orchestra. Ms. Casel was the only female in Savion Glover’s company NYOTs and recently performed in his work STePz. Ms. Casel is a founding director of Original Tap House and Operation:Tap. She is on the faculty of A BroaderWay, and LA DanceMagic. She has appeared on the cover of Dance Spirit, American Theatre, and The Village Voice.