“How many of us do you think they’re gonna let through?” acclaimed tap dancer Ayodele Casel asked a Spoleto audience last night at the world premiere of her While I Have the Floor. She was talking about minority women in entertainment but the greater message was about forced subordination: There is no time to waste being relegated to a supporting role. Make your voice heard through whatever means you’ve got — singing, speaking, writing, or in Casel’s case, tapping.
It’s a message it’s taken the tap dancer a lifetime to fully embrace. When I spoke to Casel before the opening of her show a few weeks ago, she said it would be autobiographical and indeed it was. Casel takes the audience through an oral history of her life from being born in The Bronx to a Puerto Rican mother and absentee African-American father to being beaten by a stepdad to being shipped to Puerto Rico at age nine to live with her grandparents to returning to the U.S. in high school having lost her English language skills.
As she tapped out the drama and anger and happy moments of her youth, her feet flying like some kind of wild marionette, you could feel the struggle in every step. Casel has been a fighter since she was a child and that competitive nature has served her well. By the time she actually realized she wanted to be a tap dancer — after falling in love with Ginger Rogers’ movies in high school — she was enrolled at NYU as a theater major.
“I realized,” she said, “there was nothing for me there.” As a woman of color from The Bronx, her teachers kept trying to mold her into something she wasn’t. A speech coach attempted to coax away her strong accent. Theater teachers offered her limited roles. “They didn’t even throw me ‘A Raisin in the Sun,'” she joked. But tap, that was a place where Casel not only felt normal, she found heroes who looked like her. Women forgotten to history like Jeni LeGon, Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt, Ludle Jones.
Standing center stage Casel called out each of their names, claiming them as her foremothers. The powerful scene brought the audience to applause and Casel’s closing tap brought them to their feet. The message was clear: If a little girl from The Bronx could grow up to dominate the male world of tap, there’s nothing women of any color can’t do.
As Casel closed the show, she left the audience a final invitation, “The floor is open.”
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