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Steppin' Out

Ayodele Casel makes magic with tap dance and Latin music in ¡AYO!. Sandi Carroll feels the beat. logo
Ayodele Casel
"I think we'd all be happier individuals if we paid attention to what we really want to say rather than to what we really want to buy," says tap dancer/actress Ayodele Casel. Three years ago, Casel quit her job selling shoes at Kenneth Cole to do just that. She took a leave of absence from New York University, where she was studying acting, and within two months was tap dancing Off-Broadway with Savion Glover (from Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk). Her feet haven't slowed down since. But the performer whom Gregory Hines recently called "one of the top young tap the world today" isn't letting her sudden success cloud her vision. "Expression is the most important thing," says Casel, not keeping up with the next guy making a million in Silicon Alley. "But people don't trust themselves. They don't trust that they have a voice."

In her show ¡AYO!, on view at Joe's Pub on May 7, Casel's trust in her own voice is self-evident. Drawing on her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico, she has brought her love of tap dancing together with a 10-piece Latin band, mixed it up with her brother Shihan VanClief's poetry, and emerged with an amalgam of culture reflective of her own diverse background. After seeing one of the first performances, a close friend told Casel, "It's so amazing to see these older musicians who've been around forever up there with this young group of people--to see the history and culture on-stage. If you took a picture, that would say it all." Although Casel hadn't intended to create such an impact, her success reflects how completely her voice is integrated into her work.

"For me, culture is a huge deal," the dancer/performer declares. "It's what makes me." Of ¡AYO!, she says, "It's not only about the dance. It's about the music. These musicians have been around. These are people who live the life. The explosion of 'Latin music'--Ricky Martin and all these new groups--is not a representation of what the music really is. I'm proud to say that in this show, we go back to the real deal."

The history of women in tap has also informed Casel's work, and while she stands in the spotlight, she wants to make sure her predecessors receive the credit they deserve. She cites as some of her major influences tap dancers such as Jeni Legon, the only black woman to be paired with Bill Robinson in the 1930s; Louise Miller, who danced in the 1940s; and from today's tap scene, Diane Walker, or "Lady Di." Casel admits she sometimes gets "frustrated because we have all these great tap dancers who we never hear about. It's important for the longevity of the dance for people to know, because otherwise it seems like [tap] is dead, and it's not."

As she develops ¡AYO!, Casel wants to take this celebratory evening to the next level, using music and dance to weave the fabric of her childhood stories. During the six years she spent living with her grandmother in Puerto Rico, young Ayodele heard many stories about her great grandparents. "They cut cane--sugar cane--anywhere they could, and my great grandmother sold handkerchiefs for 25 cents a dozen." Bringing together the music of her childhood and the dance that has become the staple of her adult life seemed the perfect context for giving these stories their voice. In turn, she hopes that ¡AYO! brings others to the task of discovering their own personal stories and modes of expression.

Casel's journey to this place has not necessarily been an easy one, "I haven't had a regular job since '97," she says. "I was working full time selling shoes, and I was going to school full time. By the end of that last six months, I was a miserable individual. So I quit. I had about $1,000, no job, and I said, 'You know what? I don't care. [Dancing] is what I want to do.' Within two months, I was working, and I'm happy. There've been rough times when I'm looking for silver coins in my house, but at least I know I'm not selling out. Besides, I would be doing a great disservice to all the artists who have inspired me if I didn't find my voice and use it." With a laugh, she adds, "Don't get me wrong--I want a 2000SUV someday too, but that's not the point. That's not why I'm doing what I'm doing."

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