Dancer and teacher to the stars Joya Nandi Kazi tells Seema what makes her tick
Joya Nandy Kazi appears unable to put a foot wrong.
Kazi is an award-winning dancer and choreographer who, at 16, set up Joya Kazi Unlimited, a dance company in Los Angeles, California. She trains actors, and now judges dance competitions, too.
Kazi’s team has been featured in television programs, commercials, live shows, and music videos. She is the most sought-after choreographer for traditional Indian and Bollywood dance styles. Kazi recently won a US Telly Award for a commercial choreographed and featuring her in the lead. She is the first South Asian woman to be a judge for The World Choreography Awards, the Oscars of dance. Kazi has performed with the likes of actors Priyanka Chopra, Hrithik Roshan, Ranveer Singh and Allu Arjun. Her students include Jacqueline Fernandes and Avantika Vandanapu – who was going to be in Disney’s “Spin.”
However, Kazi’s most remarkable work was her choreography and dance performance in Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever.”
Speaking to SEEMA from her dance studio in Los Angeles, she shares her life experiences, details of her training, current work, and future projects.
Please share with us your journey, both personal and professional.
I was born in Mumbai but my parents moved to the U.S. right before my first birthday. They are Hindu and Muslim. Not everyone has the capacity of understanding love [across religions]. But they wanted to create a life that was full of opportunities and devoid of any sort of prejudice as far as religion is concerned. To me, they provided a balance of American culture and the Indian heritage.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in dance? How difficult was it to convince your parents about your decision?
It was the result of going to one of those Bollywood dance shows choreographed by Shiamak Davar here in the U.S. That was my first exposure to something that I thought could be a viable career. [My parents] were fine with it and told me, “Whatever you do, just put your best foot forward and fully dedicate yourself and we are here to support you.”
How did a Bollywood show convince you that this is your passion – and future profession?
It was such an eye-opening moment for me. I just could not keep my eyes off the dancers, even though there were all these stars on the stage – like Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. There was so much passion and vibrancy on the stage. The incredible props and overall production value just blew me away. The glamour and vibrancy of a Bollywood dance show is so unique – a completely different ball game.
When did you start your formal training in Indian classical dance? How did you manage learning Indian classical dance here in the U.S.?
From the age of 4 to 16, I mainly studied Indian classical dance, which was very difficult to do here in the West, because there were not many teachers around that time. I studied Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Kathakali. Wherever I could get an education in dance, my mother would drive me there.
How did you start Joya Kazi Unlimited and how did you manage to do it at 16?
My dad gifted me a car for my birthday. I wasn’t expecting that at all. But what I was absolutely not expecting was the gift from my mother. She told me, “Get in that car and apply for jobs.” It was her way of making me independent. I already knew in my heart that I wanted to become a choreographer and dancer. That is what I had done all my life. So I decided that I would work in a space where I am already growing creatively. If I just start, I will figure out a path.
How does Joya Kazi Unlimited help to promote Indian classical dance?
My approach has always been to present Indian traditional dance not just in a very dignified way but also in a modern way so that both the East and the West can be proud of it. I took it upon myself to make sure that Indian dance and culture is represented in a more authentic manner.
Describe your experience as a choreographer for “Never Have I Ever” and then being cast in the show for a special dance in season 2?
Obviously, I was very excited. It was Mindy Kaling! The show was about a South Asian girl and her story about growing up in America. It was a representation of what I really grew up with. What made the experience so wonderful was that there was no head-butting about ideas and concepts, about the correct representation of Indian dresses or jewelry, or what a bindi looks like. I chose the dancers, because casting is very important to me.
How did you go from being a choreographer for the show to actually being in front of the camera doing a dance number that became popular?
So I was busy with the choreography, costumes and the production work. At the last minute I got a call saying that Mindy [Kaling] had seen head shots of mine and had decided to cast me as the sister, who is the main dancer.
I was doing all these other things for the show in the background and I thought that the universe will not give you an opportunity unless it feels you are ready for it. I just pulled up my boot straps and made it happen.
Are you content with providing Bollywood to Hollywood or are you looking to make a mark in Bollywood as well?
So far all of my focus had been into developing my dance career but there have been so many times that the universe pushes me to be on screen. I now realize that this is something I don’t want to ignore any more. So it is definitely on the horizon.
Who are your other superstar students, other than Jacqueline?
Other than her, there is Avantika Vandanapu… She has been my student for 12 years. Other than Bollywood, I have been able to work with The Strokes, DJ Snake, and been choreographing for the NBA dance teams. But my specialty is Indian classical and Bollywood dance.
You specialize in Indian and Bollywood choreography. Who are your favorite Bollywood choreographers of all time?
I would say Farah Khan, Saroj Khan and Shiamak Davar would be my absolute favorites. They all have different styles and flavors. I like the original choreography that Farah ma’am did for Hrithik Roshan in “Kaho Na Pyar Hai.” Of course, every piece that Saroj Khan ma’am touched became magical. They are such a great showcase [for talent] in Bollywood.
You are a professional dancer and choreographer. You can emote well. You are attractive. All these are qualities essential to be a Bollywood actress. So is acting on the cards?
I have done theater and some acting projects when I was younger. At some point, I just put all my focus in developing a dance career. I have just started realizing that it is time for me to not ignore this any more.