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"In Tap Dancing, I Found Another Language"

Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.


But as children, we are resilient, we absorb information quickly, and I learned the language with the help of my grandmother. I wound up returning to New York City six years later where I then struggled with English since I'd been out of practice. Determined, I walked around with a pocket-sized dictionary and thesaurus in my backpack.

Ayodele Casel hops on one foot against a white backdrop. She is wearing tan tap boots, gray jeans and a black tank.

Michael Higgins, Courtesy In The Lights PR

During my senior year of high school, I discovered the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were magical to me. I wanted the ability to move like them, and I started to teach myself. I took my first tap class as a sophomore in college and became obsessed.

At the time, I thought tap dance was simply a joyful way of moving one's feet and body. But when I learned about its origins being rooted in the power of communication, self-expression and traditions of African-American people, I found myself tethered to this art form for life. In tap dancing, I found another language.

I dance because I still get excited every single time I lace up my tap shoes. I dance to express joy and to express gratitude for the gifts I've received in my life. Though it was difficult as a child to leave a place of familiarity, I am so thankful for the experience of being placed in an environment where I had to learn to communicate, to learn another culture and another way of living. I love sharing that part of who I've become.

I love that after all these years of practice and performance, I am still inspired and intrigued by this musical art form. I am still trying to figure it out. Still learning. Still growing.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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