They're Used to Tapping. Now They're Talking.

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
The New York Times
July 21, 2020
By Brian Seibert

Ayodele Casel is a top-shelf tap dancer, as generous of spirit as she is precise in technique. But years ago, she discovered that even appreciative audiences didn’t always grasp all that she was trying to communicate with her feet.

“They would come up to me after shows and say things like, ‘That was really good,’” she recalled in a phone conversation from her apartment in the Bronx. And while she appreciated the praise, she found it “a bit one-dimensional.”

In response, she began explaining herself — with words, speaking as part of her tap performances.

“Tap dancers always talk about how the dance moves us, but I also feel that we move the dance,” she explained. “Our upbringing and life experience inform how we do what we do and why we do it. I thought that if we gave people more context, if we shared more of our humanity, then they might see themselves in us, and the dancing would be a bonus.”

“Diary of a Tap Dancer” is what she called the 2005 show that emerged from this idea and the five versions that have followed. What’s most distinctive about the sixth, besides its being a video series, is a widening of focus. This one has many dancers, many diaries.

The past year has been a busy one for Ms. Casel: a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard, a triumphant show at the Joyce Theater, performance and teaching gigs all over. “Two weeks before the pandemic was declared, I had been in like five different cities on seven different planes,” she said. “I just wanted to sit down for a little, so when they said you have to shelter in place, I was so grateful.”

Stuck inside, she took stock. “Thinking back over the last 25 years of my life as a tap dancer, I felt so fulfilled,” she said. “I realized that what I really want to do is amplify other voices in my community.”

So a few weeks back, when New York City Center asked her if she had a project she wanted to work on, she had an answer. Each Tuesday through Aug. 25, a new installment of “Diary of a Tap Dancer, v. 6: Us” will have its debut on the City Center website. (The videos will remain up indefinitely.) And while this week’s entry features Ms. Casel — in verbal and tap conversation with the young Andre Imanishi in Japan — the rest make room for those other voices.

The videos, directed by Ms. Casel and her wife, Torya Beard, are short, around 5 minutes, a mix of tap and talk, photo-album montages, old footage and new. It’s all been edited, but “we’re not going to pretend we’re in a dance studio or on a movie set,” Ms. Casel said. “These are video diaries about where we are now.” Some address Covid-19; others express how tap has been misunderstood or dip into long overdue conversations about tap and race.

In the series opener, the voluble and always swinging 60-year-old veteran Ted Levy compares the way that the pandemic has caused people to reassess their lives with the kind of self-searching that tap dancers do while practicing, or woodshedding. “The whole corona thing was nature’s way of stopping everybody,” he says. “The whole world gets to do what we do on a regular basis: We got to go in the shed” and figure things out.

“Tap dancers are more than just rhythms,” he said in an interview last week. “We’re more than a smile and a song, but you have to set up a context in which the dance can be understood.”

Ms. Casel calls Mr. Levy “an encyclopedia of the art,” and he calls her “the Oprah Winfrey of tap.” Recounting Zoom calls among the project participants, he marveled at how easily she could get everyone to open up emotionally.

“I’ve found that dancers don’t take stock of their feelings with any kind of frequency,” Ms. Casel said. Tap is a form of emotional expression and an outlet, but “you also really need to say it out loud.”

For many of the contributors, doing so in public is new, and scary. The video diary of Starinah Dixon addresses this newness directly. “All of my choreographic work has been related to happiness or paying homage to the forefathers of this art form or about social justice,” she said from her home in Chicago. “This seems a time to let people know about myself as a person.”

Growing up amid “turmoil and chaos in one of the worst neighborhoods of Chicago,” she said, she took after her mother, a “remain calm through the storm type of person.” Now she wants to be more honest about her doubts and pain. “During quarantine, I’ve had a lot of time to think,” she said. “For so much of my life, I’ve done what everybody else wanted me to do. But I’m about to be 33, and it’s time for me to speak my truth.”

That truth doesn’t exclude the political. “For so much of the world, the face of tap is still white,” she said. “For a long time, when I told people I was a tap dancer, they would say ‘I didn’t know that Black people did that.’ Well, tap is for everybody, but it is also Black.”

Other diarist-dancers take the political angle more directly. “My entry is about identity, about history, about racism,” Ryan Johnson said. “It’s not an attack on whiteness. It’s about me finally being in a space where I can say what I’ve been feeling.”

Actually, Mr. Johnson has been speaking his mind for years. His Washington D.C. company Sole Defined presents “percussicals,” shows that use African-American percussive dance to address social injustice in Black communities, and its extensive arts education program is centered in using art for change.

Still, “Diary of a Tap Dancer” seems different to him in its potential reach. “You mean I can actually talk about something real on the City Center platform, and it can’t be censored?,” he recalled asking Ms. Casel.

A lot of the something real has to do with race. “It’s important to say that tap dance was created by Black people,” he said, “but we don’t like to have that conversation because it’s connected to slavery.”

And the issues, of course, aren’t only historical. Touring with “Stomp” and Cirque du Soleil, Mr. Johnson said, he’s appeared on major stages across the world. “But when I get offstage, I go right back to being a Black man. And that means people looking at me like I don’t belong in the hotels that we’re staying in. The people who want a picture or autograph are the same people that if they saw me walking down the street, would pull their children closer or grab their bag.”

“There’s so much pain, and that’s why we dance,” he continued. “For me, it’s a spiritual thing. Half the time my eyes aren’t even open. Some of my best shows come when I’m upset. Like when I think about six or seven years ago, when I got beat up by two cops in my mom’s driveway and I called her name and nothing could happen. That was what initiated me to use my art for reform.”

The video diary of Lisa La Touche tells a more recent story. In 2006, she moved with two suitcases to Chicago from Calgary, and for the past 12 years, she has lived the dream in New York, including a stint on Broadway in “Shuffle Along.” In March, she found herself with three suitcases and her toddler son on a plane back to Calgary, fleeing the virus.

The move was supposed to be temporary. But as she recovered from Covid-like symptoms in her mother’s basement and found a place in Calgary for herself and her son, she gradually surrendered to a gut feeling: She wasn’t going to return to New York.

And who helped pack up her New York apartment and put her belongings on a truck to Canada? Who helped unload the truck on the other end and build her a wooden board to dance on? Tap dancers did.

“I’m mixed race,” Ms. La Touche said. “It’s complicated in my family right now and I’m careful about what I sign up for because I’m so fragile. But making this diary has helped me keep my sanity, processing what I’m experiencing while having a pair of tap shoes. Those who haven’t been heard from, need to be heard.”
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