Why All Dancers Should Be Listening to Jazz, According to Ayodele Casel

January 23, 2020

Like most tap dancers, Ayodele Casel‘s relationship to music is an intimate one. And also like most tap dancers, she considers herself a musician, too.

So it’s no surprise that when we asked Casel to create a playlist for us, she went deep, compiling her favorite Latin tracks, mostly from the ’70s.

Though Casel describes her taste as eclectic, her go-tos—Latin and hip hop—were shaped by her childhood growing up in the Bronx in the ’90s. Jazz, which she says is “connected at the hip” with tap, is also a favorite.

“I love to hear how musicians phrase,” she says. “You can get into their head and see how they feel something and where the tangents go. Going into a musician’s head makes you smarter and more in tune with what it means to follow impulses.”

We talked to Casel about what draws her to a piece of music—and why she thinks all dancers should be in tap class.

Why she listens to albums all the way through:

“You get a chance to understand the journey the artist intended. For me, when you have a favorite song and you only practice to that, you don’t get to explore other aspects of yourself. When you listen to something top to bottom it forces you to make different choices because they aren’t choices that you were expecting.”

Why “Canta” is her pre-show jam:

“I’ve heard that song since I was a kid. My mom played it, my grandparents. When I did my show at Spoleto Festival in 2017, it was the song I would listen to on repeat as I was in the dressing room getting ready to go on. It’s so nostalgic and groovy; something about it took me into a headspace that prepared me really well for that first moment in my show.”

On working with musicians like Arturo O’Farrill:

“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. It’s fun because you can be playful, you can be responsive in the moment, it’s not static. It happens with Arturo a lot: We’ll be doing something and all of a sudden we’ll hook into the exact same rhythm, and it’s so crazy.”

What she looks for in a song:

“A groove, a melody, the soul of it, the arc of it. And the interpretation: One of the reasons I love those ’70s artists from the Latin salsa era is they have real character in their voice. It was not about vocal gymnastics but more about expressing the feeling of the song.”

On her love for Marc Anthony:

“He’s probably the most contemporary of the Latin artists I have on this playlist. When I was in college, I would go see him at Latin Quarter before he blew up and became really famous. I love his stuff, he has a gorgeous voice and he’s full of soul.”

Why everyone should be tap dancing—and listening to jazz:

“For tap dancers, there’s no way you can become great without delving into the canon of jazz music. The phrasing, the musicality that is required of a jazz musician is the same that’s required of a tap dancer. I think all dancers should be listening to music that is not square and that challenges their sense of time.

“I wish more modern and contemporary and ballet dancers took tap because I think it would really help their musicality. To really have a solid understanding of time can only enhance our expression and execution of movement.”