Ayodel Casel | Photo by Matthew Murphy, via Spoleto Festival USA

Seated well back from a stage, the illusion of effortless grace makes a dancer appear to defy gravity.

Only closer does one glimpse the exertion, the discipline, the practiced athleticism that brings the illusion to life.

Ayodele Casel prepared for a career as one of the world’s preeminent tap dancers by being the most valuable player of her high school volleyball team two years running. Lessons learned.

Like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and so many of the great tap dancers of motion picture history, Casel wants to make the exacting look easy.

“I loved Ginger,” said Casel, who will be making her second appearance May 27 to May 29 at the Spoleto Festival USA. “She seemed to be floating. Even before I knew what I was doing, I wanted to make it look light and airy. That’s part of how my style developed. I pride myself on not sweating!” 

Accompanied by six other tap dancers and five musicians led by celebrated Latin jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill, Casel will perform the stage translation of her Bessie Award-winning film “Chasing Magic” at the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre.

Her collaboration with O’Farrill, a Grammy Award winner, has been especially fruitful. But she says the entire “Chasing Magic” troupe is very much a family, with many of those family members set to join her here.

Casel, a recent recipient of the 2023 Doris Duke Artist Award at New York’s City Center, was a 2019-2020 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University as well as artist-in-residence. She also has been honored with a United States Artist Fellowship for her work, which includes a touring company, her one-woman show “While I Have the Floor,” and her theatrical and film series “Diary of a Tap Dancer.” 

In 2022, Casel served as a tap choreographer for the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” for which she captured a 2022 Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Choreography. But the capper was being depicted on a U.S. Postal Service stamp.

“Learning I had won the Doris Duke Award was one of the best phone calls I’ve received in my life, not only for the financial reward, but to have been selected from a group of Latino artists and presenters. The stamp was something totally unexpected. When that became a reality, so many things came into focus for me. I have always wanted to contribute to this art form. Is a great honor, but it is honoring tap dance, not me.”

Tap in daily life

The hallmark of “Chasing Magic” is dynamism. It is described, modestly, as exploring “the magic of tap dance in daily life, capturing that spark of connection and creation.” But Casel, born in the Bronx and raised in Puerto Rico, also puts a profound cultural element in play, her performances centering on “highly narrative works rooted in expressions of selfhood, culture and legacy.” 

“I think my heritage has contributed highly to my work. Artists always draw from their experience. As a tap dancer and choreographer, it is a celebration of my individual expression. My Black and Puerto Rican heritage comes out in all manner of ways.” 

Casel is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the William Esper Studio. A dance educator for more than a quarter century, she is co-director of the online tap dance educational platform Operation Tap, serves with the DLNY Tap Dance Project, and is on the board of the youth arts leadership organization A Broader Way Foundation.

“I love teaching. The last six or seven years of my career have really ramped up, so I have had less time for it. When I can teach, I’m so happy to engage with so many extremely talented young people in this way.

“But right now I’m just excited about coming back to Charleston. I had such a great time there in 2017 and am so looking forward to returning.”

Anything to spread the “gospel.” Unlike the 1930s and 1940s, when tap dancing was at the apex of its popularity with such practitioners as Astaire and Rogers, the Nicholas Brothers, Chloe Arnold, Eleanor Powell and others film stars, tap may not be quite as appreciated by today’s general public today as it might be. Casel wants to broaden its appeal.

“My mission is to transform the way people look at tap dancing. One of the things I’ve found in my journey is that whenever someone hears in conversation that I’m a tap dancer, they are so intrigued. It’s really something everyone loves.” 

  • IF YOU WANT TO GO: 7:30 p.m., May 27; 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., May 28; and 2 p.m., May 29.  All performances at the Sottile Theater at the College of Charleston.  Tickets start at $38.

Bill Thompson is a veteran culture and travel writer who lives in Charleston.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.