Choreographer, dancer and movement director Usha Jey is currently in Birmingham, UK at the ongoing 2022 Commonwealth Games, performing Kutu folk dances from Tamil Nadu and her signature #HybridBharatham choreography. Even if Jey’s name doesn’t ring a bell, her performance certainly does.It’s impossible to miss her now viral Instagram video dancing to Lil Wayne’s dance fuss Wearing a plaid bottle green Kalakshetra saree, she fused hip-hop with Bharatanatyam in her unique interpretation. — At the time of writing this feature, it had nearly 5 million views. Due to her popularity, she is now showing the world an extended version of this choreography at her 10-day sporting event.
When I met Jey in her Zoom window a few weeks ago, she had just returned to her hometown of Paris after a tour of Europe with British rapper MIA and was preparing to leave for the UK. My first question was deciphering her unique #HybridBharatham choreography that made her the Internet’s beloved dancing queen. How did you come up with the idea to combine Indian classical dance with street style dance? “I came up with the choreography in 2019 as an experiment for myself. People say I mix two dances, but I’m not. Each Bharatanatyam adavus has a specific mood. It’s not that I mix it with hip-hop moves, I consciously switch from one dance to another and completely respect each one,” she explains.
As a first-generation French Tamil, the dancer grew up straddling two cultures, and choreography is simply a collision of her worlds, both of which she genuinely sympathizes with. Jey started learning her dance in hip hop over ten years ago and started hanging out with her friends. She never expected to find her groove in the process. But the opportunity to study bharatanatyam in the French capital required some hunting. “I always wanted to learn, but I couldn’t find a suitable place in Paris. So I didn’t mind being the only adult in a room full of kids!”
Tamilia’s music and movies are part of the family’s daily life at home, says Jey. She spent ten years learning her native language. She saw dancing as another way for her to stay connected to her roots, Tamilia. Did she approach the tailoring aspect of this process with equal respect? “I grew up absorbing the values of the Tamil culture. It’s a relic of my lineage, the thread that binds me to my land,” says the choreographer. I don’t see it in the same way, as the sari can also be represented in many other ways. You can express your culture even if you go to.You can say where you come from without trying to look like someone else.”