Crown The Brown – Never Have I Ever Exclusive : Joya Kazi
Crown The Brown – Never Have I Ever Exclusive: Joya Kazi. Joya studied Theatre & Dance with an Emphasis in Choreography & Production Management with a double in Political Science and minor in Managerial Economics at UC Davis. She has been training in Indian Classical Dances for 27+ years. She has blazed trails for classical artists in the entertainment industry.
Joya pushes Indian arts and culture into the mainstream. She has taught as a Guest Instructor at Stanford, FIDM. The first to bring Indian Classical and Bollywood dance to the Commercial Dance Program at the Orange County School of Arts.
Above all, Joya started her company at the age of 16. Joya Kazi Unlimited has grown to be a multi-pronged company encompassing an Academy, Professional Troupe, Bollywood Costume Design and Entertainment company.
Joya Kazi is no stranger when it comes to being on screen or giving her best. She was recently in the Netflix series, Never Have I Ever. We wanted to know more about her journey over the years. This is what she shared with us!
When did your journey with dance start? How did the passion come about?
I was born in Mumbai and my parents moved to California before my first birthday. We didn’t have much exposure to Indian dance. Ironically, the very first time I saw an Indian dancer was when I was about 3 years old as Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video played on MTV.
I remember being so enamored by this beautiful Odissi dancer. It was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the first time I saw someone on television that looked like me; brown skin, big eyes, a beautiful red bindi. I told my mom that I wanted to dance like her. Mainly because I thought that meant I could marry Michael Jackson and travel the world with him!
As soon as I was 4, my mom took me to my very first dance class for Odissi and it was the start of an amazing journey. I went on to also study Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi.
I told my parents at 12 years old that I had made up my mind on what I wanted to be when I grow up.
We had attended a Bollywood stars’ show where my mom pointed out Shiamak Davar, the choreographer. It was the first time I realized that a career could be made of it.
I thought about how I could take all my ideas for costumes, props, concepts, and movement and bring them to life. I announced to my parents on the ride home that I was going to be a choreographer!
They were surprised, but after being adamant about my decision. They said that no matter what I do, to put 100% into my dream and it will happen.
I launched my company, Joya Kazi Unlimited, four years later at the age of 16 and then studied Theatre & Dance at University with an emphasis in Choreography and Production Management while doubling in Political Science with a minor in Managerial Economics.
You have had some amazing experiences and memories. What are some of your favourite moments?
I’ll never forget the feeling of being on the IIFA Awards stage. Specifically during the opening set where I performed with Priyanka Chopra Jonas. I remember the towering golden doors opening to reveal a packed stadium of over 50,000 screaming fans and the adrenaline rush was something else.
Another amazing moment was when my Madhuri Dixit Tribute was one of the Top 5 Nominees for Favorite Concept Video at the Universal Dance Awards in Hollywood the same week as being telecast all over the world during the grand finale of Madhuri Dixit’s show “Dance Deewane”.
It was surreal to be recognized in Bollywood and Hollywood for the same piece of work. Most importantly, I was the first South Asian to be nominated with industry icons. Losing the title to THE Brian Friedman is in itself a huge accomplishment because that means that Indian dance is being seen and recognized by the mainstream.
As a dancer and choreographer, what do you enjoy most about being on stage or in front of the screen?
When I dance, it’s like nothing else matters. I feel at home, at peace, and like that’s where I belong. It’s a blessing to turn your passion into a profession with purpose and although creating and performing for stage is vastly different from doing the same for camera, my mission has always been to showcase the dynamism, tradition, and technique of Indian dance.
Being able to showcase dance culture through my work is my offering to the world and the thing I love most about performing is the pride and joy that comes from my family and my community.
You were on the new series, Never Have I Ever. What was the experience like and why do you think it is so important to celebrate how diverse we are in a western society?
When I was first approached for this show I was just told that there is a Netflix series coming out and it happens to have Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher as the writers and producers. I knew immediately what show it was because we had all seen the open castings Mindy had put out for a while. My initial involvement was originally supposed to just be choreography, casting and wardrobe.
Then a little into the process after rehearsals I ended up getting a phone call saying,
“The producers saw your head shot and said they loved the choreographer and would love to have you in the scene as well playing the lead dancer, Preeti.”
Obviously I was so excited and really looking forward to being both behind the scenes and on camera, but it was also challenging.
I had to wear so many hats and juggle multiple responsibilities throughout the 6 week process and the big shoot day. In addition to choreographing & casting, I oversaw hair and make up, wardrobe, styling, rehearsals, and also had to keep myself camera-ready.
It’s a lot of responsibility for a team, let alone one person. Overwhelming? Yes, but so incredibly rewarding at the end of the day because I got to have say on how we were represented through our hair, wardrobe, and choreography.
This project was so unique from anything else that I’ve worked on in the fact that it’s completely unprecedented in how it depicts Indians.
I was especially excited to be part of the South Asian representation as a dance creative because so often we find that choreographers are hired even though they have never trained in Indian Classical, Folk, or Bollywood dance styles.
They will use filtered aesthetic and cultural devices in their own choreography processes without ever consulting those who are actually trained. Even worse, without even using the culturally relevant bodies. That’s why it was so important to me to be a part of this as a choreographer who has studied Indian classical dances for over 27 years. To cast dancers either trained with me in my company or are experienced in Indian Classical/Bollywood work.
This is why representation matters and Mindy Kaling has provided an unprecedented platform for showcasing South Asians and their many stories while keeping in mind that representation isn’t one size fits all, but helps further diversity in entertainment for all.
Dance certainly has a way of bringing people together. It conveys a message. The dance portrayed in the show was so intricate and significant to the story-line.
Can you explain to our readers why it is so significant towards our culture and representation of the show?
The scene where Devi Vishwakumar, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, comes across my character, Preeti, performing is a key moment of paramount importance to the identity struggle immigrant youth deal with. All the more valuable because of it’s authentic, realistic and raw portrayal of South Asians. Devi has never felt like she quite fits in anywhere.
She’s told she isn’t Indian enough and equally not American enough.
I’ve also dealt with this strange push and pull of trying to find where I fit in terms of cultural identity. In the states I’m too Indian and when I’m in India, I’m too American.
You see Devi who is imperfect and struggling with being okay with her “Indianness” juxtaposed against my character. Her friends dancing with joy and pride while being “Indian Indian”. It’s a real thing that such different experiences can exist in the same space.
On top of that, the representation is off the charts with this scene. You’re seeing traditional clothing instead of a mishmosh of sequin and arabian costumes, authentic jewelry, realistic styling and an accurate portrayal of how a dance performance would play out in this scenario.
My favorite thing about the representation – The ability to cast dancers who are of the South Asian diaspora or connected to the Bollywood industry.
Through choreography, we were able to normalize Indian dancing. American television’s portrayal of Bollywood dance is usually sensationalized and staged as a spectacle, but here, it’s just normal.
Who inspires and motivates you and do you have any favourite dancers that you admire?
Honestly, the pride I see in my community is largely my motivation. It gives me purpose and I feel like all my hard work is meaningful and doing justice to the love, support, sacrifice and guidance I’ve received from my family and gurus.
Inspiration to me can happen at anytime and anything. From a sound or color to a quote or concept can be the seed of creation. But the energy required to create needs fuel. Watching dancers like Michael Jackson, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Misty Copeland, Jennifer Lopez who are unapologetically themselves is the fuel that keeps me going to create.
Have you experienced any challenges as a choreographer, if so what are they?
Where to begin? I’m a South Asian American female entrepreneur in the entertainment industry. Specializing in bringing Indian Classical and Bollywood dance to mainstream. That in itself is at least 7 challenges in one sentence!
Whether it be my community back home being unsupportive until they could read about me or see me on television. Or my Indian classical world being at war with my entertainment world. Or trying to convince agents that I’m the real deal. I’ve had to learn to simply believe in myself. To be okay with rolling out the red carpet on my own.
What people may think is an overnight success has been a lifetime in the making. From when I walked into my first dance class. To starting my business when I got my driver license. To claiming my space in an industry that wouldn’t even let me in through the door.
As difficult as the climb is. Each of these experiences has shaped me to be the best me in my mind, heart, and art.
What future projects can we expect from you?
Right now we are in a strange space with the pandemic. Which means my upcoming projects have been postponed at best. I can say that there will be plenty of exciting projects. Some more Kaziography right around the corner.
Do you have any advice for other dancers out there?
In a world of racing to make a 60 second video to the latest trend, don’t forget that knowledge and identity are your greatest currency. The quest for likes and followers is ephemeral contentment, but the quest for training and knowledge is deeply fulfilling and will run the course of your life.
No one can ever take away your training, experience and deep knowledge, but any random person can get a million views. If you’re serious about a career in dance you have to think beyond the quantity of videos you’re putting out and really think about the quality of your work, professionalism, and what you bring to the table in a business setting.
No one can ever take away your training, experience and deep knowledge. But any random person can get a million views.
The longevity of your career and ability to build a professional network that leads to opportunities which will bring in a paycheck may take years to work on, but should always take priority over the temporary satisfaction of making a social media video. Train, network, train, create, train, build and train some more!
You’ll have a strong and deep rooted understanding of who you are, what you represent, and your work will reflect that!
Joya Kazi has been a showstopper for years!
Joya‘s credits span Hollywood to Bollywood and include TV/Film, Music Videos. Commercials for Disney, Dreamworks, FOX New Girl, International Indian Film Academy Awards, Grammys, DJ Snake, The Strokes, and Raja Kumari.
She was Top 8 on Reality TV show “Dance Plus”, has been choreographing for the NBA for 7 years. Choreographed for the premiere of the first ever NBA India Games in 2019. Joya has performed with Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Madhuri Dixit, Ranveer Singh, and Hrithik Roshan.
This amazing young lady has certainly showcased her talent worldwide and we are so proud of the manner in which she encourages South Asian representation. It is beautiful to see Joya express herself through dance with a purpose! Be sure to follow her journey joyakazi.com or follow her @joyakazi .