Usha Jey’s performances where fashion meet dance went viral, now she’s at the Commonwealth Games


Choreographer, dancer and movement director Usha Jey is currently in Birmingham, UK at the ongoing 2022 Commonwealth Games, performing Tamil Nadu’s Kuthu folk dance as well as her now-signature #HybridBharatham choreography. If Jey’s name doesn’t ring a bell, her performances certainly will. It’s impossible to have missed her now-viral Instagram video dancing to Lil Wayne’s Uproar dressed in a chequered bottle-green Kalakshetra sari — bringing together hip-hop and Bharatanatyam in her unique interpretation that had close to 5 million views at the time of writing this feature. Such is its popularity that she is now performing an extended version of this choreography at the 10-day sporting event for the world to see.

When I met Jey through my Zoom window a few weeks ago, she had just returned to her hometown, Paris, after a whirlwind European tour with British rapper M.I.A, and was preparing to leave for the UK. My first question was to decode her inimitable #HybridBharatham choreography that made her the Internet’s darling dancing queen. How did the idea of fusing Indian classical with street style dance come about? “I came up with the choreography in 2019 as an experiment for myself,” reveals Jey, who has also worked with fashion brands like Off-White, Rami Kadi and Ashi Studio on movement direction and show choreographies. “People say I mix the two dances, but I don’t. Bharatanatyam adavus each have a specific mood. I am not mixing this with hip-hop moves. I consciously switch from one dance to another, honouring each in its entirety,” she explains.

As a first-generation French-Tamilian, the dancer grew up straddling two cultures, and the choreography is simply a collision of her worlds, both of which she identifies with whole-heartedly. Jey started learning hip-hop dance over a decade ago to keep a friend company. She did not quite expect to find her groove in the process. The opportunity to study Bharatanatyam in the French capital, though, took some hunting. “I always wanted to learn it but I couldn’t find the right place in Paris. Bharatnatyam is seen as this dance form you need to learn at a young age, but I only started at 20. I was doing it for myself and had nothing to prove. So, I did not mind being the only adult in a room full of children!”

Tamilian music and films, Jey says, have always been a part of her family’s everyday routine at home. She even spent a decade learning her native language. She looked at dance as yet another way to stay connected to her Tamilian roots. Did she approach the sartorial aspect of this process with equal reverence too? “I’ve grown up imbibing values from Tamilian culture. So I don’t view the sari just as a dress. It’s a relic of my lineage, a thread tying me to my land,” says the choreographer. “Often, when people talk about the sari, they refer to it as a representation of femininity. I don’t look at it the same way, because a woman can be represented in many other ways too. More than eloquent affinity, the sari lets me represent my culture everywhere I go, like when I wore it on French national television. It lets me say where I come from, without trying to look like someone else.”



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