Exclusive: Interview with Kumari Suraj
We've been following the beautiful and talented Kumari Suraj's dance career for a while now. Suraj has been traveling all over the world teaching and performing her very own fusion "Bollywhack!" She was finally back in LA so we knew we wanted to reach out and connect with her. We met up for lunch and chatted about everything from her unique childhood, her love of dance, music, fashion and all things PRIDE!
What was it like growing up in a multiracial household?
I was born into a multi-cultural military family. Both parents were in the military. My mother is Native American and European. My father is West Indian, Desi and Sikh. He had special permission from the military to keep his turban, full beard and long hair. Because of the military my parents lived in Korea. I grew up with my parents speaking Korean phrases and eating Korean food. Both my parents are musicians. My dad use to have a recording studio in our basement. My dad was a musician and he had every instrument. My mom is a pianist. So I grew up around music. It was just apart of who we were. My parents split up when I was 4 and my mom did her best to keep us connected to all of our cultural roots so we could understand our own mixed identities. I was obsessed with Bollywood films when I was a kid. We only had the IFC channel at that time which would play item numbers from Bollywood movies at 2 in the morning. So I'd stay up and watch them and that was like my only exposure at the time. As a kid I always use to feel really excited watching them because it was like, oh this is a part of my blood, but also kind of sad because I didn't look like any of them. That was another journey of self acceptance. Because I'm a person of color with no color. People can't really place me anywhere. I have a very strong West Indian, East Indian, Native American, and European background. It's been an interesting journey.
When did your passion for dance first start?
I started dancing because I watched the movie Flash Dance when I was 3. I also found out later that Jennifer Beals, the lead in the film was mixed race as well. I had an obsession for a while of finding people of color who didn't have any color so I could figure out who I was. I was obsessed with that film and her. I even had the hair and wore leg warmers. I've been dancing for 32 years this July. I started with ballet when I was 3 years old and I got boobies at 8 and realized I'd never be a skinny ballerina. My dreams were crushed. So I moved on to hip hop. When my parents split, my mom reintroduced us to Christianity so we grew up in the church. We had a really cool church and we had a youth group that was like MTV for Jesus. It was filled with bboys, graffiti artists, and MCs. I got to perform on tv with them.
We were taught that it was okay to be yourself and you can worship God with your art.
After high school I just wanted more. I was determined to learn as many dance styles as I could. I got into breaking and was a Rock Steady crew member in New York. From the breaking scene I got into the popping and locking scene, house, vogue, and whacking. I learned from the people who created these dance styles. I wanted to learn everything I could about street dance. My Dadi Ma (dad's mother) is West Indian so along the way I learned dance styles of the African Diaspora. It wasn't until I moved to LA at 25 that I took my first Indian dance class. I started a crew called The Waackers and one of the girls from the crew was a classical Indian dancer. So I taught her Whacking and she taught me Bharatanatyam. She was actually the muse for Bollywhack. I went on to study Bhangra, Classical Indian dance and Bollywood.
The more dance styles I learned and the more I got into music, fashion and art the more I realized how connected we all really are.
What was it like competing on Dance Plus in India?
It was the most amazing experience because I wanted to learn more about Production. It was like production bootcamp. It was intense. Introducing Bollywhack to India was really cool. In India sexuality was so fluid pre-colonialism. Whacking is a queer dance. It comes from the queer LA club scene in the 70's. Putting it out into an audience that may have preconceived notions with the LGBTQ+ community was a really big deal and we did it with glitter and smiles so everybody fell in love with it. It raised a lot of questions for people there - "Like where does Whacking come from?" "What is queer?" "Is it ok?" "Is my kid queer?" Bollywhack isn't just a cultural fusion of dance it's also the LGBTQ+ inclusion into the Indian community.
What does Pride mean to you?
I come from a queer household. My grandma on my mom's side is queer. So I grew up in a family that was accepting of gay, lesbian, transgender, drag queens and bi-sexuals. My grandma was super Christian. She was very very religious and her whole ministry was about getting people to understand that God is love and your sexual orientation doesn't matter. My grandma was really slick and I didn't realize it until I was older. She was a pastor and she use to be a pastor in both gay and straight churches. When she was in straight churches she would keep it under the radar until they completely fell in love with her. Once she was integrated into the ministry she would sit down with the pastor and be like, "listen I'm gay." They would usually choke at first, but they already loved her and continued to love her and her contributions to the Church. The beautiful thing was that her whole mission was to show people that God is love and orientation doesn't matter, that gay people are normal too and can be a healthy part of a community. I'm grateful for the way I grew up. I've known what my sexual orientation was since I was 5. I'm Pansexual. I'm attracted to everybody - men, women, trans. I'm attracted to people as humans. My companionship in my heart is with women. I definitely don't feel like it's a choice at all. I don't even know how that argument is still circulating. I felt overwhelmed at Pride in Los Angeles this month. It made me miss my grandma a lot. Walking around and seeing everyone live their truth is such a beautiful thing.
Pride to me is the ability to be yourself freely and share your identities and preferences while also accepting everyone else's identities and preferences.
The queer space is spreading more and more. I like the progress that's being made and how there's more safe spaces for the queer community and there's more of an understanding. Parents aren't just kicking their queer kids out of the house like before. I think a lot of my grandma and how she went through hell to be who she was and she did it proudly. She always gave love no matter what. I loved listening to her stories so I know what older generations have gone through. Their struggles have made it easier for us to openly live our truths.
Has there been a moment that you felt inspired by someone else being inspired by you?
I'm blessed to have many of these moments. It's overwhelming every time, but also so humbling. I have really amazing and powerful students all over the world. I think the most recent one would be Ridy Sheikh. She left an opportunity to be in a movie to study Waacking & Bollywhack under me and be apart of the team from Dance Plus. She was part of the team for Dance Plus. Watching this very conservative Russian-Bengali girl become an even more powerful force was inspirational.
For the past decade I've been a dance educator. I want to do more choreography for film and television. Also, plus size modeling and possibly acting. I have been accepted into FIDM in LA and am going back to finish my degree for fashion design. I started fashion design when I was a teenager, but never finished it because my dance career took off. My love for fashion came from my parents. The way they dressed in the 70's and 80's was impeccable. Both of them wore body suits and fur coats. My dad had a man purse - they were just both so hip. They looked like rock stars. My grandparents on both sides were also very fashionable. I think it's the standards on both sides of the family that's continued. With all this fashion influence my generation, my brother, my cousins and I all love to dress. My grandma taught me how to sew. All of the women on my mom's side made their own clothes and did a lot of DIY projects in general. I've been doing a lot of creative direction. That's what I really want to lean on. I love storytelling. I love the whole aesthetic of Artistic direction. It's lights, camera, action, fashion, dance - it makes people feel something. When I moved to LA that's all I wanted to do. I wanted to get paid to make people feel; getting paid for it was a bonus.
Kumari is an important creative in our community. Her message of spreading love, light and art was so clearly evident as we were getting to know her! We're so exited for what our sister has in store for the future! Make sure you follow Ms. Suraj and check out her awesome videos online!
Check out Kumari's videos below!