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Interview with Joya Kazi

The first Indian dancer Joya Kazi remembers seeing was performing on MTV. At the tender age of three, her eyes were glued to the screen as an Odissi dancer moved the music of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” 

“It was the first time I saw someone on television that looked like me,” Kazi admits. “brown skin, big eyes, a beautiful red bindi. I told my mom that I wanted to dance like her.”

Soon enough, Kazi started taking Odissi dance lessons when she was four years old. “When I would dance, I would feel like I was flying in the sky,” Kazi explains. “There was no better feeling than being in class, watching my Gurus’ every move to match the detail and challenge myself with all the knowledge they shared. I completely fell in love with dance because it was where I felt most complete, and dancing brought purpose to my life.”

Joya Kazi is no longer the beginner who longed to be like the brown-skinned girls on her television screen. Now, the Los Angeles-based 32-year-old sought-after choreographer is teaching and spreading Indian culture through dance to be infused in every aspect of the entertainment industry. Her work includes being a part of TV shows like New Girl and Never Have I Ever as well as teaching master classes all over the world to founding and directing her own dance company. She uses her platform to continue to share the beauty of the South Asian arts, which is a common thread throughout her interview with Overachiever Magazine. 

 


 

How has your South Asian background influenced your love of dance?

Being South Asian definitely steered the direction of my exploration of dance. I was attending ballet as a child, but my mom felt that I would always be able to access ballet living in the states, yet finding the right Gurus to learn Indian classical dance would always be hard to come by. That’s why she really wanted me to focus on building a strong foundation in Indian Classical Arts. I studied Odissi, Kathak, Bharatnatyam, and Kuchipudi amongst other classical forms and then double majored in Political Science & Theatre & Dance at the University of California, Davis with an emphasis in Choreography and Production Management while minoring in Managerial Economics. Within my first month in college, I quickly came to realize that we were the only university in the entire state to not have a competitive Bollywood team, or as we called it then, Hindi Film Dance. So, I founded Toofan, meaning “storm,” the very first of its kind at UC Davis because my culture has always been a strong part of my identity, and my love of dance was my best form of connection to it.

Do you have a particular process when it comes to choreography? How do you connect with your fellow dancers, especially in circumstances when you’ve just met them and need to be in sync as quickly as possible?

My process has morphed through phases over the years but generally comes down to starting with the part of the song that resonates most to me. I then build from the beginning to the end. Sometimes choreography begins with freestyling to find what speaks to me most or with a concept that I need to portray through movement. When I’m working with my dancers, we have a sense of camaraderie and understanding of the style, so we are able to quickly connect and match each other. In new scenarios with dancers I’ve never worked with, we generally have a strong foundation of dance and technique that allows us to interpret movement similarly and quickly adjust with visual cues. That’s what being a dancer is all about; being both strong and trainable in your dance.

What are some of the most fulfilling things about being involved in dance in the entertainment industry? What can be frustrating?

Seeing the pride in my parents’ eyes will always be the most fulfilling part of my work. The sacrifices my parents made as young immigrants who moved to this country without knowing a single soul to create a new life full of opportunities are my driving force. The frustrations I deal with are usually centered on combating the appropriated ideas of what Bollywood dancing should look like within the industry and a sense of having to prove myself as successful being a female entrepreneur in the arts within my South Asian community. 

Who are your dance-spirations (dancers you look up to)?

Artists like Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Michael Jackson, and Misty Copeland have been long time inspirations for me in my dance. Each of them has had a uniquely different connection and journey with dance that I’ve always admired. One thing I’ve learned from their careers is that the path one artist takes does not necessarily have to be the one that you follow yourself and that you should never let the opinions of others or their definitions of success define the possibilities in your own life.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

Getting back up every single time I was knocked down, and not giving up on myself is the single greatest accomplishment I could achieve. Pursuing dance professionally and being a fulltime artist with a specialty in a cultural style so different from the industry I work in comes with the greatest struggles, tears, and heartbreaks. There have been so many times that I felt beaten down, defeated and came so close to walking away from all the closed doors or giving in to everyone else’s opinions of me, but my mom always taught me that you have to roll your own red carpet out yourself to walk down. Everyone else will follow if, and only if, you truly believe in yourself. If you don’t, why would anyone else? 

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Asian women today? 

Our community. As much as we’d like to think that we are a very modern and forward-thinking community, we have misogyny woven into the fabric of our society, and it generally guises itself as culture and tradition. Really it’s just a way of devaluing and undermining the immense power and potential of females. People are always quick to assume that everything I have achieved in my career to the house I live in or the car I drive are given to me by my parents or my husband, when in fact, they are things I have diligently and relentlessly worked towards on my own. Many in my community have told me to my face that there is no way I could be completely financially independent and that the only reason I can “just dance” is because my husband is a doctor. What people fail to see is that a daughter of their community had a dream, started her own company at sixteen, worked to become financially independent by the age of eighteen, and has been able to support herself and her husband far before he was ever a doctor. It’s strange how, when a male accomplishes anything, it’s seen as a given and boasted about with pride, but when a female does so, it must have been handed to her.

Do you have any advice for the young South Asian girls who want to pursue a career in dance/choreography who may be afraid to do so?

The South Asian culture has a very closed mentality when it comes to the performative arts as anything more than just a hobby. You will forever find people that have something negative to say about you if you pursue dance professionally, but who are you living your life for? With anything, knowledge is your greatest power, and in dance, especially, it’s something that will forever remain limitless. Part of my strength as a choreographer lies in my spectrum of dance technique, history, theory, and artistry. In a world driven by social media, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of self-proclamation of being a dancer or choreographer based on likes and views from the internet, but training, experience, and professionalism are what will carry you through a career with longevity. You have to seriously train in dance and the art of choreography. Don’t waste your time trying to persuade people around you to let you pursue something. Instead, create a strong game plan, maintain a dependable and professional approach just like you would any other career, be open to the new, and be trainable as you seek to learn under the guidance of seasoned veterans in your field.

What’s next for you? Any exciting projects?

This year has definitely put an undetermined pause on some amazing work, but I hope that 2021 will allow for you to see these projects make their way onto TV & film. In the meantime, I’ve been teaching online, and you can subscribe to my mailing list on my website for updated details on my teaching schedule and upcoming projects!


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Joya Nandy Kazi is Los Angeles’s celebrity choreographer known for pushing Indian arts and culture into the mainstream, whether it be through entertainment, education, behind the scenes, or on camera. She has been a vocal driving force in advocating for representation and authenticity in the dance industry and has dedicated her life to carving a space for her art and creating opportunities for aspiring artists. Most recently, her work in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever was proclaimed “a Hollywood Milestone” and one of the top 3 reasons to watch the show by Mashable. She is the first to bring Indian Classical and Bollywood dance to the Commercial Dance Program at the Orange County School of Arts, and has taught at Stanford, FIDM, and internationally on her sold-out Master Class Tours. Kazi’s credits span Hollywood to Bollywood and include Disney, Dreamworks, FOX New Girl, International Indian Film Academy Awards, Grammys, DJ Snake, The Strokes, and Raja Kumari, to name a few.

She founded her dance company at the age of 16, and now Joya Kazi Unlimited has grown to be a multi-pronged Bollywood entertainment company encompassing a professional troupe known to house the most highly trained and skilled Bollywood dancers, an academy for pre-professional dancers, and services ranging from choreography to costume design for film and television. Kazi has been training in Indian Classical Dances for 28+ years and has blazed trails for classical & Bollywood artists in the entertainment industry with a unique approach that balances classical art and commercial entertainment, which are, more often than not, opposing forces.

So much so that she was the first South Asian artist to ever receive a nomination at the Universal Dance Awards for a Bollywood piece that was one of the Top 5 Favorite Concept Videos of the year. In the same week, her Madhuri Dixit Tribute video was featured on the grande finale of Madhuri Dixit’s “Dance Deewane.” Recognition from both the Hollywood & Bollywood industries is a testament to how her training and experiences in eastern and western styles of dance have contributed to work that is appreciated globally.

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Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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