Ayodele Casel

Vintage coat and shoes by The Row from the Albright Fashion Library. Leotard and tights by Wolford. Socks by Maria La Rosa. Earrings by Mejuri.

Live from New York: Ayodele Casel

Ayodele Casel was in high school the first time she encountered tap dancing, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire click and clack their way across the screen in perfect unison. "I thought it was the most magical form," she recalls. "They were just floating so gracefully and I couldn't believe that." A few years later, as a sophomore in the acting program at NYU, she was in her first tap class when she met Bakaari Wilder, a fellow student with more extensive experience, who introduced her to the art form's true, often overlooked legacy. "He opened up a whole new world for me concerning tap dance," she adds. "It also concerned me and my identity because it was when I realized that this art form that really piqued my curiosity in Ginger Rogers was rooted in the experience of Black people. I started to learn about all of these folks and it made me really proud. I feel like one of the greatest aspects of my ancestral legacy is knowing that tap dancing is rooted in the Black experience."

A little over two decades later, Casel has cemented her own place in that long legacy, stretching from Bill Robinson at the beginning of the twentieth century through legends like the Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines to Savion Glover, who choreographed the 1996 Broadway hit Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. This weekend, she is looking both forward and back as the curator behind the latest edition of New York City Center's Artists at the Center, a three-night run featuring an impressive six world premiere commissions reflecting the range of today's tap community. "I'm always thinking about how to bring other people with me," she explains about the opportunity to offer this platform to her fellow tappers. "One of the things that I'm always hoping to do is show the breadth of what the art form contains. Though we may speak the same language, the way it comes out of us is different. One of the beautiful things about tap dancing is how our unique individual experience gives life and breath to the form."

Casel's own experience speaks in many ways to the expansion of tap over the past twenty years. Born in the Bronx and raised in Puerto Rico, she spent many years early in her career fighting to be seen. She remembers being "so inspired" by Bring in 'da Noise, but disheartened by the fact that its cast did not include a single female. "Even when there was a dearth of tap dancers who could do the work, they still weren't looking for women," she says. "I do remember feeling like, 'Oh, there's a barrier, there's a wall here.' I was young and I was brave and so I just kept showing up. I kept showing up to the point where I couldn't really be denied." When Glover launched his own company, Not Your Ordinary Tappers, she was the only woman in the initial lineup. "I noticed that audience members were shocked that I was there, happily shocked," she adds, "but I thought, 'Damn, this is weird. I'm not an anomaly.'"

Now Casel finds herself as a Black and Puerto Rican woman in a position as one of the most prominent artists in her field. She won a Bessie Award for her show Chasing Magic in 2021, choreographed last year's hit Broadway revival of Funny Girl, and earlier this year received a Doris Duke Artist Award, which comes with a grant of $550,000, a welcome promise of stability in a time when the arts and artists are ever more and more vulnerable financially. After a period of burnout before the pandemic, she says she is ready to continue the work that needs to be done to make tap a more inclusive sphere and tell its true history. "I feel like we've had it with having our narrative overtaken by white supremacy culture or those people who have had the access to tell the stories," she says. "We're now telling our own stories and a lot of those history books have been written by white people. I do see us challenging the narrative more."

Ayodele Casel | Artists at the Center continues through tonight at New York City Center. Read this story and many more in print by ordering our sixth issue here.

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Vintage coat by The Row from the Albright Fashion Library

Vintage coat by The Row from the Albright Fashion Library

Hair by Rebekah Calo. Makeup by Andrew Colvin at Saint Luke Artists. Photographer's assistants: Daniel van der Deen and Mae Stark. Stylist's assistant: Jane Bickford. Makeup artist's assistant: Zac Hart. Model: Nifemi Ogunro at We Speak Model Management.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.