What a Sound It Makes

SEP 16, 2021

by Sonja Thomas

Arturo O’Farrill and Ayodele Casel perform “The Sandbox.”

Ayodele Casel is a feminist anti-racist tap dance artist. Her work encourages us to engage with the history of tap and with the ways in which the art form has always communicated resistance to oppression. As she recently explained in Dance Magazine, “I see the power of this art form to speak to social justice, race, identity, politics.”

Postage stamp featuring Ayodele Casel.

Her tapping, always informed by her Puerto Rican, Bronx, and Black roots, has especially brought attention to Black women in tap dance. While we may know and celebrate the names of male artists, Casel shines a light on women’s lives at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class. In her pieces While I Have the Floor and Diary of a Tap Dancer, Casel draws from the archives and from dancers such as Lois Bright, Jeni LeGon, and Juanita Pitts, narrating how they broke through a man’s world. They broke through a man’s world just as Casel herself has and continues to do as a recipient of honors including the 2017 Hoofer Award, a 2018 Artsmith Transcendence Award, recognition as one of the 2019 New York Times Breakout Stars, and a 2020 Radcliffe Institute Fellowship (to name a few accolades). She has even been featured on a 2021 USPS postage stamp.

While Ayodele has the floor, she says their names.

Her artistry is thus attuned to Black feminist theory on intersectionality, including the writings of Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, and bell hooks. As these theorists teach us, #saytheirnames surpasses inclusion; #saytheirnames insists that social movements lift every voice. It asks us to know and always remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants. It asks us to remake our world by questioning what “inclusion” really means and by creating futures that are equitable and just. “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” Lorde writes.1

Casel structures Chasing Magic with a series of sections inspired by values that inform her work. We see the sound of Joy communicated between Ayodele Casel, Anthony Morigerato, Naomi Funaki, and John Manzari. We watch one artist’s joy filling another’s joy who fills another’s and another’s that spills into even more joy as the audience experiences the artists’ percussive expression of that emotion. We witness Friendship and deep bonds made in generating percussive music in tandem with the piano.

Casel draws from her collaborations and her feminist anti-racist corpus as she centers these connections and gives sound to what feminist theorists refer to as “affect.”

Affect theory explores how feelings, emotions, pleasures, and sensations emanating from the body/parts of the body can reveal the structures that uphold the racist heteropatriarchy. In affect theory, the body is integral in making sense of an unjust world. Sensational knowledges are generative and, as Ann Pelligrini and Jasbir Puar write, “aid in comprehending subject-formation and political oppositionality for an age when neoliberal capital has reduced possibilities for collective political practice.”2 This generative power of affect may especially be true in an art such as tap dance where the body literally generates sensation. Two senses, sight and sound, awaken simultaneously in audiences, heightening tap’s communicative and revolutionary capacity. This generative power becomes paramount in Casel’s musical collaboration where melodic bodies interact with each other as the affect radiates from the stage and moves the audience. As affect theorist Sarah Ahmed writes, “if sensation brings us to feminism, to be a feminist is to cause a sensation.”3

We see the sound of Trust with Afro-Jazz pianist, Arturo O’Farrill. On working with O’Farrill, Casel has stated, “When you’re really listening to who you’re playing with and you’re open to what they’re putting out, you create a harmony that’s gorgeous because it’s truthful.” If trust has a sound, it is the harmony between O’Farrill and Casel.

We see the sound of Legacy, Inspiration, Gratitude. In previous work, Ayodele has said the names of Black women who came before. In Chasing Magic, Naomi Funaki, Amanda Castro, and Ayodele Casel dance in trio, creating their own legacy where women of color are visible because we refuse to let them be invisibilized.

Senfu Stoney and Amanda Castro perform “Bomba II.”

Casel has described her dancing as always influenced by her culture, her ancestors, and their resistance: “Out of that oppression, they found this glorious way of moving and communicating and making sound, and that will never get old to me. My work is rooted in that—always and forever.” We see the sound of Culture and Ancestors: Amanda Castro dancing and Senfu Stoney drumming the Puerto Rican African diaspora Bomba. The circle, use of the trunk, drumming, and interaction between tap dancers all hark back to the plantation dance; the ring shout.

Ayodele Casel harnesses the power of affect and gives sound to that which language cannot describe, showing a feminist anti-racist way forward.

As a feminist anti-racist educator, I have heard those moments when my students understand what it means to see through a feminist lens and to work in an anti-racist collective. To quote Sarah Ahmed once more: “For me reading feminist theory was a series of continuous clicks. And later, teaching women’s studies was such a delight as you can participate in other people’s clicking moments: what a sound it makes; how important it is that this sound is audible to others.”4 Casel prompts our own clicking moments as we hear and witness artists’ affective expressions and connections to self, other dancers, musicians, the audience. In those clicks, she makes audible the path toward social justice.

What a sound it makes.

Sonja Thomas is an Associate Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Colby College


[1] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, (Trumansburg, N.Y. Crossing Press, 1984), 111.
[2] Ann Pellegrini and Jasbir Puar, “Affect,” Social Text, 27, No. 3, (Fall 2009): 37.
[3] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2017), 39.
[4] Ibid., 29.
Arturo O’Farrill and Ayodele Casel perform “The Sandbox” in Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic at The Joyce. Photo: Kurt Csolak.
Ayodele Casel is featured in a 2021 collection of US Postal Stamps honoring tap dancers. Photo: US Postal Service.
Senfu Stoney and Amanda Castro perform “Bomba II.” Photo: Kurt Csolak.

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