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Life and Work with Joya Kazi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joya Kazi.

Joya, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I was three years old when I first saw Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video where he dances in the streets with an Odissi dancer, an Indian Classical dance form. It was the first time I had ever seen someone on TV that looked like me. I loved her clothes, the flower crown around her head, and everything about the way she moved her hands and her eyes. I told my mom that I wanted to do that, mainly because I thought that if I did, I could dance with Michael Jackson. A few months later, my mom took me to my very first dance class, an Odissi dance class.

That’s where it all started. I began my journey of intensely studying Indian classical dance and music and felt so grateful that my mother recognized my passion and went above and beyond to make sure I got the arts education I needed. I focused on three classical dance styles, Odissi, Kathak, and Bharatnatyam. When I was 12 years old, I went to a Bollywood concert with the biggest stars from India centerstage, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the incredible dancers behind them who danced non-stop for two hours. I thought about their lives, how they probably rehearsed all day, traveled all around the globe, maybe didn’t get to see their friends and family all the time, but here they were halfway across the world from all they knew, living their best lives on this stage. I looked at the costumes, the design of the props and the sets, and how creatively the choreography was set for each song. I remember my mom nudging me to look over to the side of the stage and she pointed out a gentleman and told me that he was Shiamak Davar, a famous Bollywood choreographer. It hit me that all the incredible things I was seeing on stage were created by this man and that this is actually something you can do! It was at that moment that I knew my passion was my purpose. On the ride back home that night, I told my parents that I don’t want to just be a dancer when I grow up, but that I will be a choreographer. I still remember sitting in the back seat and seeing my parents turn to look at each other. I’m not sure what they were thinking, but from then on they supported me however they could.

I started my company when I was 16 years old and started working as a choreographer for both Indian Classical & Bollywood work for various companies. I continued my dance education at the University of California Davis, as a Theatre & Dance major with an emphasis in Choreography & Production Management with a double major in Political Science and a minor in Managerial Economics. During these years, I worked three jobs, started a dance team at my school, worked as a Choreographer for other companies, and saved up my money each month to travel to LA for classes and networking. I wanted to ensure that I had opportunities lined up before I was finished with school because I did not want to be the “starving artist” most people think about when someone says they’re an artist. I started working in LA in 2012, launched an LA Branch of my company in 2014, and then expanded various branches to include a Professional Dance Company, Entertainment & Casting, and a Bollywood Academy. Later that year, I performed at the International Indian Film Academy Awards under the direction of the same Bollywood Choreographer who inspired me so many years before, Shiamak Davar.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Being a fulltime artist was seen as impossible by everyone around me. It just wasn’t cool, popular, or a viable career in the least. Even though my parents supported me, they were rightfully concerned when I didn’t have a Plan B, but I knew that if I had to split my energy between two things, neither would come to fulfilling its full potential. I needed to have one plan and focus on making that happen. Luckily, my family and my husband have been the greatest supporters!

Naysayers are always a challenge. Being a South Asian American, anything outside of the professions of medicine, law or engineering is sub-par. There would be family friends and community members who would actually scold my parents and tell them they’re crazy for letting me waste my life towards some silly dream of being an artist. Of course, years later, they’re the same ones who are so excited to see me every time I come home and are the first to say that they always knew I was so talented and would make it.

Once I started standing out in the studios and companies I danced at, things got really difficult for me. I was ostracized, bullied, told that I was too short, ugly, not good enough, a fake, that I had no talent, would never make it, my college apartment was egged, the mirrors on my car bashed in… the list goes on. During those formative years, I wanted to fit in so much that I chose to not dance my best just so the people who I thought were my friends would talk to me and I wouldn’t be called a diva or a show-off. I started pushing myself into the corner, didn’t challenge myself when the opportunities presented themselves, and soon almost started believing everything I was constantly hearing about me. I got to a point where I figured that if these many people are saying I’m not good enough, I must be the delusional one. I started considering changing my career path to law and in the middle of this, I realized that I was allowing people who have never had a positive impact on my life to completely sway me away from my life dream. This was a defining moment in my life because I gained something that no one could ever take away from me. I had to really dig deep to build myself up, but this is when I learned how to believe in myself, even when nobody else did. Once I got to LA, the craziness of the industry just didn’t get to me. If I could get through what I dealt with through high school and college, nothing could phase me.

For anyone trying to pursue their purpose, I would say to first have belief and faith in you. In your darkest hours, this will be your guiding light. Continue learning. I never stopped my quest for knowledge. I even chose to drive two hours one way in LA traffic just to pursue further training with a Fellowship in Indian Classical Dance. Before the quality of my execution, my differentiating factor has always been my depth of knowledge. You have to keep your mind open and never fall prey to thinking that you know everything. I hope to be 90 years old and still going to class! Pursuing a profession in the arts requires you to exercise both your right and left brain. You have to grow your business sense and your artistry simultaneously. This will lead to lots of dead ends, things not going your way, or failures, but I’ve learned to frame those as opportunities to learn. Be teachable and malleable, but don’t lose sight of who you are. It’s okay to say “No” and protect your energy and time. Take personal responsibility and have integrity. I’ve let lots of “opportunities” go by, but that’s because I value integrity over quick successes. Integrity is a timeless currency, and will always lead you to better places in the long run. I believe it’s so important to acknowledge the shoulders that you stand on; acknowledge your gurus, mentors, people along the way that have helped you get to where you are today. Support each other and share each other’s work. Most importantly, support the women around you and in your industry! We can accomplish so much together!

The journey is never without hills and valleys, but I’m grateful for each challenge and learning moment along the way and so excited to see what the universe has in store for me!

Please tell us about Joya Kazi Unlimited.
My company is all things Bollywood dance education & entertainment, with an X-factor in quality and authenticity.

The Academy has stood out because I standardized the approach to Bollywood dance with a cohesive curriculum that helps students learn everything from technique to choreography to performance skills with progression-based lesson plans that also include Theory, History, and Artistry.

The Dance Company is an all-female dance troupe with incredibly talented dance artists. Our work has quickly become known for its authenticity and for gracefully treading the lines of creating commercial work while maintaining a sense of integrity to the classical and folk dance styles I use to create our choreographies.

The Entertainment & Casting company services an ever growing market for highly skilled choreographers and dancers and I love that we can connect dancers to opportunities in both the Hollywood & Bollywood industries. I get the best of both worlds while  working in LA and Mumbai, with our community and with celebrities, to create amazing memories for clients and moments on stage or on screen!

Company Credits include Disney, Dreamworks, Grammys, International Indian Film Academy Awards, Fox Season Premiere of New Girl, NBA Dance Teams, music videos with DJ Snake, Raja Kumari, Nick Cannon, Indian Dance Reality show Dance Plus, and performances with Bollywood actors such as Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Madhuri Dixit, Hrithik Roshan and so many more.

A really exciting and special moment for me was seeing my mom look at a tile mural of myself put up at the Artesia Public Library. I just loved seeing all the pride and joy in her eyes. I am where I am today because of all she has done for me!

Are there any apps, books, podcasts or other resources that you’ve benefited from using?
My favorite online mentors to turn to are Marie Forleo and Gary Vee! Their Podcasts and YouTube videos are all amazing!

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.


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