Sometimes talent is undeniable and that's the case with choreographer Joya Kazi. Born in Mumbai and raised in Northern California, Kazi began professionally dancing at the early age of 8 and launched her own company Joya Kazi Unlimited at age 16. Her establishment is a full service dance and choreography company specializing in TV/Film, live events and education. Joya has worked with big name studios —Disney, Dreamworks, Fox and this season she'll be adding Netflix to her resume with a collaboration on Mindy Kaling produced series, "Never Have I Ever." We had the opportunity to chat with Joya about her journey with dance, inspirations, and her current projects!
1. What was your first memory where you can pin-point what sparked your interest in dance?
I was born in Mumbai and my parents moved to California before my first birthday and 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 and 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 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.
2. Which artists inspired you the most growing up?
Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Yanni, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Lady Gaga are all artists I really looked up to growing up. Their dedication and devotion to their work really inspired me to discover more of what I can do with my art.
3. How did your family feel about you pursuing a non-traditional career path (i.e. doctor, lawyer, engineer)?
I grew up in a world full of arts. I had dance training every day of the week and also learned how to play the piano, violin, guitar, tabla, and flute so there wasn’t a day that went by where I wasn’t playing music or dancing. Lots of South Asian kids grow up like this and it’s very common for it to be a surprise when all of a sudden all the things you’ve been training in growing up is actually something you want to do for a living! I told my parents when I was 12 years old that I wanted to be a choreographer and they kind of passed it off at first saying we can discuss it later when I go to medical school, but I was adamant and said, “No, this really is what I want to do. I want to choreograph and bring my ideas to life and show the world what Indian dance is.” After that they said “Okay, whatever you want to do, just focus and give it your all.” It’s understandable that there was still quite a bit of uneasiness with my stubbornness about choosing the arts as a career because our parents just want the best for us. I feel like we get hung up on the idea of having to convince our parents to be okay with us pursuing a non traditional career path instead of using that time to just make it happen, so I knew that I was going to just show them I’ll be fine instead of wasting time convincing them to even let me start. So, I started assisting my teachers’ classes at 12 years old, trained harder and began seriously choreographing, started my company at 16 years old, was financially independent by the time I was 18 years old, and I made sure I was constantly networking, auditioning, and putting myself out there so that before I was done with college I already had job offers waiting for me in Los Angeles. Needless to say, my parents are very proud of everything I’ve accomplished.
4. How did you become a choreographer?
Part of being an artist is honing the skills you’ve learned and using them to in turn create art of your own. My mom would encourage me to set time aside to go and choreograph something growing up. I got more serious about choreography around 12 years old and debuted my first pieces on stage which included kathak, bharatnatyam and a dance drama for Mahishasura Mardini where I choreographed a cast of over 75 dancers. I started choreographing professionally at 16 years old and was hired to commission dances for dance companies, local schools and music videos. I’m so grateful for those initial opportunities to learn the whole process of how to create, stage movement, work efficiently through a rehearsal with multiple groups, and all the production aspects involved with presenting dance. It was a nice foundation of experience to take with me to university as I studied Choreography with a western approach. It taught me to challenge my own process and question my ideas and what I am creating. A deeper knowledge of choreography really helped me in taking on choreography jobs for artists like Raja Kumari, the first ever NBA India Games, and having my Madhuri Dixit tribute (https://youtu.be/4LX27de4L30) featured on the grand finale of Colors TV Dance Deewane and receive a Top 5 Nomination for Favorite Dance Concept Video at the Universal Dance Awards all in the same week! Choreography is about your own artistry, but it is also a skill you need to work on.
5. What was it like working on Netflix's new series, "Never Have I Ever?" Do you have a fun story you can share?
Working on “Never Have I Ever” is probably one of my favorite projects to date. I worked on choreography, casting, wardrobe and performed in it. It was incredibly challenging to juggle each of these responsibilities, especially during the shoot, but all the more rewarding to see the final product, especially for an unprecedented show like this. To have cultural representation through writers, actors, and also in choreography and costuming is very rare. I was thrilled to be able to choreograph and style my dancers without any restriction that could interfere with the authenticity of what would be on camera. I’ll never forget the reactions of everyone on set during the very first take of our dance scene. Seeing Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Devi) with a huge smile of amazement as we began dancing reminded me of when I got to first see Indian dance on television for the first time and the joy and pride I felt.
6. You're having a traditional Desi dinner party — What dishes are a must for a perfect meal?
Definitely can’t go without my mom’s amazing biryani recipe! Love me some seekh kabobs, and I’m always down for some chicken tikka masala with hot and fluffy garlic naan!
7. Who were your favorite music artists growing up and who are you listening to now?
I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, Yanni, Kishore Kumar, Lady Gaga, Selena. My latest playlists still include them but right now I’m listening to Maroon 5, Ariana Grande, Kacey Musgraves.
8. What's next for Joya?
Right now the world is going through a huge change and all my classes, training, performances, and new choreographies are being created at home and offered online. Who knows how long the pandemic will last, but our safety is of utmost priority. So until then, I’ll be enjoying connecting more so with people around the world through dance on my Instagram (instagram.com/joyakazi) & Youtube (youtube.com/joyakazi). Once we’re back to a sense of normalcy, there will be plenty more tv and film projects to watch out for!
Never Have I Ever | Official Trailer | Netflix
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