30 January 2024

Usha Jey is bringing traditional Tamil dance to the world

The dancer’s combination of hip-hop and Bharatanatyam have already taken her to Paris Fashion Week and the Commonwealth Games

As a first-generation French-Tamilian choreographer, dancer and movement director, Usha Jey’s heritage is at the forefront of her art. If her name rings a bell, you may have seen her many viral dance videos in which she combines hip-hop and Bharatanatyam – the oldest classical dance tradition in India – in her now signature, infectious #HybridBharatham choreography. The dancer grew up straddling two cultures, and the choreography is simply a collision of her worlds, both of which she identifies with wholeheartedly. 

Jey started learning hip-hop dance when she was 16 because her friend didn’t want to go alone, but much to her surprise, she became enthralled by the art form. However, the 27-year-old wouldn’t truly connect to her Tamil roots in dance until she turned 20. It took perseverance, but Jey would eventually discover an establishment in which she could learn Bharatanatyam, and she’d go on to spend the next three years perfecting the craft.

Despite her clear and obvious talents, Jey managed to obtain a master’s degree in project management and entrepreneurship before becoming a professional dancer. Still, she continued to chase her unwavering passion for dance and sharpened the tools in her arsenal, and would go on to organise dance battles across Paris before taking her skills worldwide and competing everywhere from Ukraine to China. 

As her talent and notoriety grew, she’d then be tapped by Virgil Abloh and Off-White to choreograph rapper M.I.A’s (one of Jey’s greatest inspirations) performance for the label’s runway show in 2021, in what would become a career-defining moment. Since then, Jey and her dancers have gone on to perform at high-profile events like the Vogue World Runway in New York City and the 2022 Commonwealth Games in the UK. And late last year, she even brought her marriage of hip-hop and Tamil tradition to the Goalkeepers event – a gathering of world leaders for the 78th UN General Assembly. 

Here, HUNGER sits down with Jey, who was photographed by Raajadharshini Kalaivanan, to discuss her journey, working with her idols and continuing the Tamil tradition for years to come…

HUNGER: Hey, Usha, thanks for speaking with us! I read that you’re based in Paris. Is that where you are right now?

Usha Jey: Yes that’s where I am right now, I was actually born in Paris! I’ve always felt at home in Paris because the hip-hop scene is really thriving here, and that’s what I grew up dancing to, so I feel more comfortable here than in any other big city.

Speaking of dancing, when did you first discover that it was a passion of yours?

I started dancing to hip hop when I was 16 and then decided to take some classes. Then, when I was 20, I started Bharatanatyam, which is a Tamil classical dance, so overall, I learnt two styles of dance.

And who were the artists inspiring your dancing during those younger years?

At that time, I was listening to a lot of French rap. This actually came from my big brother. He was showing me people like Booba and all of the big guys in the scene.

In the dancing world, is there anyone in particular that you look up to? Or was there a particular routine you were really inspired by?

For me, I wouldn’t say I’m inspired by one specific choreographer. It’s more of being inspired by one particular piece, and I’ll just keep watching that piece. I’m really open to all types of dance, it’s not just hip-hop that I’m watching. I’m trying to watch different styles and get different perceptions. I just love it when a piece feels really authentic to a choreographer.

When did you first realise that it could be a career instead of just a hobby?

When I was younger, I organised hip-hop battles in Paris, then I started going to China, Ukraine, and all over the world with my crew, Ghetto-Style. When I was meeting all those people across the world who were doing this for a living, I knew I wanted to do it, too. I think when you see somebody who is literally living thanks to dancing, it makes you believe that you can do it, too.

Were your parents always supportive of that dream?

For them, at first, it was really new. My parents are Tamil, and they came from Sri Lanka, so the idea of making a living through dance is really new to them. I don’t know anyone who’s Tamil and is making a living from dancing. So it was different, but they were not against it. I was studying, and I got a master’s degree at the same time I was doing dance, so they knew I was being smart about it.

A big moment for you was working with M.I.A, who you’re a big fan of, for an Off-White show back in 2021. What was it like getting to work with her in such close proximity?

M.I.A is such a big inspiration for me as she’s also Tamil, and we don’t have any representation of that in the hip-hop scene. So when she asked me to choreograph for the Off-White set, it was such a big opportunity that I’m really, really grateful for. She’s an icon. And when the event was finished, she sent me flowers at home, and it was so cute. I was grateful that I could just talk to someone that I always look up to. Since then, I’ve been working with her, and I’m even working on her European tour this year. She’s someone that I really appreciate, and I’m so glad that I now know her as a human being.

Going back to the Off-White show, did you have many interactions with Virgil Abloh at all?

Actually, there’s a video on social media where Virgil Abloh comes up to me and says that he loves what I do. Just to meet him was unreal, and then for him to compliment my work was such an inspiration to keep going because he’s someone who always supported the next generation, and he always did things outside of the box.

One thing that you always try to do with your art is put your heritage front and centre. How important is it for you to put that on display to the world?

It’s really important. Just so you can understand, my parents had to escape Sri Lanka because there was an operation against the Tamil community. So we’ve had to make sure we keep the culture of our community alive. For instance, I can speak, read and write Tamil. I make sure that I keep learning about my history, but also to keep showing my love for it as much as I can, and so this is something so important for me. They wanted to erase our culture in Sri Lanka, so I make sure that wherever I go, I mention my culture and how proud I am.

What would you say has been the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment in your career so far?

I think there are a lot of things, but I would say there was one time when I was working for Vogue’s 130th anniversary, and I had to rehearse in front of Anna Wintour. And I was like, “Is it her?” It’s crazy when she’s just sitting in front of you. And I remember right before I got on stage for the real show, I just couldn’t concentrate because I was so nervous. Then I looked to my left, and I saw Kanye West sitting there. It was crazy. Then I went to a party they organised, and Doja Cat and Lil Nas X came and spoke to me, and they were both so lovely.

Rehearsing in front of Anna Wintour definitely sounds like a lot of pressure! Where do you see your career going in the next few years? Do you have a particular goal in mind?

I think I always project myself in one year because I think in that time everything can change. So, I have never projected for more than one year. Right now, what I’m focusing on is working with brands to create visuals, and runaways or campaigns are all something that I’m really interested in. I recently started to choreograph for movies, too.

I’m also trying to make sure that I can do something positive for the Tamil community in Paris. Right now, I’m organising free sessions so that people can come and get inspired by the dancing, so that’s something I’m really focusing on.

  • Writer Chris Saunders
  • Photographer Raajadharshini Kalaivanan

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