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BWW Blog: Hannah Seewald - Interview With Ayodele Casel: A Shuffle Ball GAME-Changer

Who comes to mind when I think of a talented, intelligent and influential person? Ayodele Casel. This powerhouse tap dancer, actor and teacher has broken boundaries and shown how an interest can help you discover a talent and even transform into a lifestyle and career.

As she tapped her piece, "While I Have the Floor" at New York City Center during the Off-Center Jamboree, silence pervaded the air, as all in the audience would be remiss to miss a single word of the audio recording. All the way from my seat in the steep balcony and everywhere in the theater, Ayodele's emotion and skill were thoroughly felt. The ingenious performance was followed by a show-stopping standing ovation that continued until she came out for a second bow due to the non-stop applause. This inspired piece will be forever remembered by so many, and, I am thrilled to say, will be reprised at City Center for the Fall for Dance Festival on September 30 and October 1st. This moving performance definitely led me to wonder more about where and when this extremely gifted tap dancer's passion and love for her trade came to be.

During her high school years, Ayodele's interest in tap sparked when she came across Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, and soon led to her teaching herself how to tap basic steps. However, her true passion for tap arose after watching a peer perform, and ultimately created her deeper understanding of the art.

"I would say my LOVE for tap began when I met a fellow NYU student, Baakari Wilder, who happened to be a phenomenal tap dancer. He generously agreed to teach me and hearing him was the first time I heard tap dancing as a pulsating, rhythmic force that comes from your point of view and not just a series of mechanical steps. I became obsessed with practicing. He also happened to be working on a show that was premiering at The Public. I naively asked, "does it have tap dancing in it?". It was Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. I cite the experience of seeing that show as a life changing moment for me. That opening scene of Savion Glover in a spotlight dancing a cappella in basketball shorts, skully, while laying down the most funkiest, soul stirring, head bopping, musical tap phrase changed my life. I sat there, mouth agape, and knew that my life had changed. I wanted to be a tap dancer. Seeing that raw expression influenced my style but it also began a tap dance revolution worldwide. It influenced the style and approach of many. Working with him for several years inevitably informed how I danced but naturally as I evolved and my experiences and education widened so did my style. I like to think that now, so many years later, I am the embodiment of what God intended ME to be and a conglomerate of every tap dancer I've let into my psyche."

Ayodele entered the tap profession knowing it to be a male-dominated profession. She took this head-on and has proven how proficient and adept she is in the field, smashing gender boundaries along the way. Her empowering charisma and incredibly successful career have helped her pave the way for more female tap dancers.

Her advice for these aspiring tap dancers: "Let your hard work, discipline, determination, and talent speak for itself. Do not compromise! Also, if you don't see a space for yourself, make one! Do not be deterred. Luckily, this is a time where our voices want to be heard. When I came on the scene a little over 20 years ago, few women were considered. Few women were taken seriously. In my generation I was in a very small handful of women who were getting in the ring with the men. Times are definitely different now and I couldn't be happier. I like to think that my being in the ring helped to change the male dominated narrative and my painful awareness of too many women whose voices we have never heard from has fueled my determination to be heard."

Not being taken seriously as a female tap dancer has been one of the many obstacles that Ayodele has overcome. When confronting challenges in her career, she tries to always keep a balanced and calm outlook and get past whatever the situation may bring.

"I think what I have tried to remember and exercise the most in my life is staying creative, inspired and artistically 'in shape' regardless of whether or not there is work. It is a very empowering and liberating feeling to know that you can still do what you love in those times when performance opportunity seems to slow down."

Setbacks always find a way to sneak into the lives of many, but joy and triumph can also fly into life as well. Ayodele has reached many milestones in her career, including performing in venues such as Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Center, and has been featured in many magazines and television shows and now choreographs tap herself. There is one stand-out milestone that will truly resonate with pride in her mind for the rest of her life.

"I'm so lucky. I have to say that the most memorable one, and it's not just because it was the most recent, was receiving that standing ovation from the audience at City Center for the Off-Center Jamboree Concert after performing my piece this past July. As I stood there in front of over 2,200 people I felt like it belonged to all of these women I spoke of in my piece, all of us. Lois Bright, Louise Madison, Alice Whitman, Cora LaRedd, Juanita Pitts, and so many more. 100 years of applause. Overwhelming and the best feeling in the world. I'll never forget that evening as long as I live and I'm so grateful to Jeanine Tesori for the opportunity and the space she gave me to express myself. It took a few days for me to be able to speak about it without crying. I have never felt that much love and support from fellow artists in my entire career. It was ironically, a new experience for me. So many of us were hugging and sobbing backstage. My friend Darren who was also in the show refers to it as "Cryodele", the event. It was a beautiful evening."

More often than not, success comes from the strength within accompanied by, of course, the help of mentors and role models along the way. Ayodele has been taught many valuable traits including: "discipline, integrity, supreme artistry and generosity." From one very important mentor, Ayodele has learned all of these.

"Gregory Hines, who I think about every day, was an incredibly generous human being on top of being an accomplished artist. Love and generosity are a huge part of his legacy. I am greatly inspired by that. He once said 'Influence is everywhere. The danger is being closed and saying that one thing is the ultimate.'"

Ayodele has been able to take this Gregory Hines quote to heart and apply it in her life, drawing inspiration from multiple individuals.

"My biggest influences began in childhood from witnessing my mother's hard work and determination to my grandmother's good natured attitude towards everything and my stepfather's obsession with making me aware of staying safe in all environments. I am greatly inspired by people who are masterful at their craft, authentic, and always creating, thinking, trying to figure the "thing" out, making the most out of the 24 hours in each day and also manage to be gracious, loving people at the same time. This year I've adopted a new mantra by Terence and that is 'I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me' so I am striving to mirror the amazing spirit I see in those around me. Seriously. From Olympians to my closest friends and mentors."

The United States is truly a global "melting pot". Just as Ayodele's influences are found from both near and afar, the U.S. is a country that has been raised up by people from many different places and walks of life. It continues to diversify by the day. Diversity comes with culture, varying languages and uniqueness. Being bilingual can truly aid in one's success in life and transform understanding of the world. Ayodele is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in the Bronx, a borough that flourishes with culturally-rich demographics. So throughout her life, Ayodele has appreciated the true gift of bilingualism.

"Learning to speak Spanish at an early age is something I consider to be a blessing. I was 9 when I learned out of necessity having moved to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents and attend school. I remember it being incredibly isolating and difficult not being able to communicate but when I returned to NYC at 15 I found it was really an asset to have had the first hand experience of learning to speak, read, and write in Spanish. I found a lot of my peers from Spanish speaking households had only interacted with the language in one way. They could understand it but not speak it and in some cases didn't understand but a few words. Speaking another language expands the amount of people I can quickly connect with and I very often use it immediately when I find myself meeting or interacting with strangers who speak it. There's that immediate recognition and there's a pride I feel thinking of my upbringing when I am able to communicate easily in the language. As far as career, you know, it goes under that special skills box on the resume! lol If you need it, I got it! Ironically, one of my first acting jobs on Law and Order required me to speak spanish in a scene as a device for hiding information from the detectives. So I have used it professionally, officially!"

Ayodele is a true global citizen who loves traveling and seeing all the parts of the world in its greatness. Whether it is flying to another continent, or being engulfed in a theater performance, Ayodele is an avid explorer.

"I travel a lot for work but somehow if my love is with me on those particular travels then it seems like mini vacations. We just went to London. Stayed in the smallest hotel room I've ever seen in my life and had a blast. I also love going to see theater. When the house lights go down, I get so excited to be transported to whatever world is behind that curtain."

One might think that such an incredible performer with such a rigorous schedule must have a secret to staying fit and healthy! Ayodele truly feels that her job, which keeps her always on the move, helps her maintain a healthy lifestyle. She eats, sleeps, and breathes her craft and applies that dedication and energy to her own wellness and to her appreciation for her personal growth.

"I teach a lot and I practice a lot so I'm always dancing whether or not there's an upcoming performance. I love that Van Gogh quote. "I keep on making what I can't do yet in order to learn to be able to do it". I'm always trying to figure this thing out. I also love every opportunity I get to walk in this city of mine. It's calming. I even like the city bike experience."

Despite all of her talents, Ayodele Casel remains humble and grateful for everyone and everything that has enabled her to succeed. Her kind and genuine persona emanates from her performances, and her ability to convey such thoughtful meaning and emotion through dance leaves an indelible imprint on those lucky enough to experience it. She shuffled her way through once-closed doors and has kept them open to invite more to follow. I give my utmost respect to Ayodele, as she is not only an extremely talented individual, but an ideal role model and the epitome of what a strong and intelligent woman can be.

The Fast Five:

Fun fact about yourself:
I'm a pancake fanatic and I like to say, a connoisseur! I'm SO particular about how I like them made and when I order at restaurants my family and friends shake their head but expect it from me.

Favorite healthy snack:

I enjoy a granola or a nutri-grain bar.

Favorite unhealthy snack:
I just finished eating some lemon creme oreos!

Favorite musical or play:
It's so hard to pick just one. I go through phases. Noise/Funk, Rent, Aida, Passing Strange, and, of course Hamilton!

Favorite way to unwind:
On the couch with my love Torya, snacks and AppleTV!

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