"You know what really irritates me? When people say 'I didn't know women tap danced.'" Yes, that's a real comment Ayodele Casel actually gets, most recently three weeks ago, and it's one that drives her crazy. For a woman who has been defining the tap dancing game for the past 20 years, it's hard to believe someone might not imagine a person like her in it. But stereotypes are nothing new for the petite African-American Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx. And with Casel's world premiere Spoleto performance While I Have the Floor she's embracing all those stereotypes and shattering them one step-ball-change at a time.
"I'm so excited. It has been the greatest gift of my life to present something like this at Spoleto," says Casel during a break from rehearsal in New York City. "I'm not joking. For 17 years I've wanted to do something like this." Casel is cagey about the details — spoilers and all — but suffice it to say, her Spoleto performance will mark a journey she's been on for the past two decades, an effort to, as she says, "reclaim my language and culture and identity." As with many awakenings such as this, Casel says hers stemmed from being shaken over a news story.
"I read about a plane crash in Germany, and it struck me, we really do not know when it's going to be time to go," she says. "I realized the amount of years that had gone by of me being capable and able bodied and of sound mind and I wasn't following this instinct."
So that's what While I Have the Floor is — a moment to explore herself.
"I started tapping at 19 years old. I didn't grow up tap dancing. What I learned in the writing of this piece, my experience and journey as a tap dancer, was how much of my identity I had fully embraced," Casel says. "I mean of my Puerto Rican heritage and African-American heritage. I regained and learned about the pride of being half black because of the pioneers in this art form. Growing up in the Bronx, the word minority was used a lot like, 'You're a minority. You're a black Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx.' That stuff can psychologically embed in your head."
Fighting to be included is nothing new for Casel. After she befriended Baakari Wilder, who at the time was a principal dancer in Savion Glover's Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, the NYU student knew she couldn't be a theater major any longer. She started training with Tap Dance Orchestra, and, a quick study, Casel's name and tapping prowess began to spread amongst the tap elite in New York City.
According to Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History, Glover saw her tap at the Nuyorican Poets Café where she was one of just a handful of women who would get up and jam. "Impressed with her tap dancing, Glover invited Casel to a taping of a performance that would serve as the opening credits to the 1997 ABC-TV Monday Night Football, a live television broadcast of the National Football League." Glover then invited Casel to be the only female dancer in his fledgling company Not Your Ordinary Tappers (NYOT).
So yeah, Casel knows a thing or two about crushing stereotypes. She took that same attitude to a Hillary Clinton campaign rally last year where she was asked to perform. After being introduced by actress Lena Dunham, Casel wowed the crowd with an excerpt from While I Have the Floor. And though the former Secretary of State didn't win the Presidential election, Casel says, given the opportunity, she'd stump again for another candidate she believed in.
"When I was younger, I was just being. I wasn't making statements. Or at least, I wasn't making deliberate statements. I was just doing it because I was following my instinct. In retrospect I just wanted to dance. I didn't care, I just wanted to be a part of that culture because it really really spoke to me," Casel says. "As I'm older now, the more experiences you have that can be sexist, I realize it really is important for me to make statements. I teach younger girls and women who look up to me and it's important for me to let them know that they are really powerful."