Meet Usha Jey, the Rising Multi-Hyphenate Fusing Bharatanatyam and Hip Hop
Paris-based Tamil dancer and choreographer Usha Jey took the world by storm when her #HybridBharatham series went viral on social media. Featuring duets and trios in which dancers switch between hip hop and the Indian classical dance style bharatanatyam, the videos are set to tracks by rappers such as Lil Wayne, Jack Harlow and DaBaby. Offscreen, Jey and her dancers have performed at high-profile events like Vogue World Runway in New York City and the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK. Jey is growing into a multifaceted artist: As a result of her childhood love of theatrical dance scenes in Kollywood (or Tamil) movies, she’s particularly interested in exploring the world of short films and choreographing for cinema.
Companies: Red Sauce and Ghetto-Style hip-hop collectives
Hometown: Paris, France
Training: Hip-hop with Kanon Zouzoua, of Ghetto-Style collective; bharatanatyam with Anthusha Uthayakumar, from Bharathothaya
Discovering dance: Ten years ago, a friend took Jey to a hip-hop class where she realized her love of movement. She’s also trained in kuthu, a style of Tamil folk dance, and bharatanatyam. “It took a long time to find a guru who could teach me bharatanatyam in an authentic way,” says Jey.
Finding balance: “The important thing for me is to keep the essence of both styles without denigrating one for the other,” says Jey of her #HybridBharatham choreography. “Bharatanatyam movements are really clean and sharp, whereas in hip hop you can find your own groove. I want to find the right balance between them.”
Art and activism: Episode 4 of #HybridBharatham is set to “One Hundred Thousand Flowers,” a rap song about the oppression and genocide by the Sri Lankan government of Tamil people from the proposed state of Tamil Eelam. “I wanted to use my platform to talk about something close to my heart, and to show my identity, frustration, sadness and anger through art.”
Classical costumes: When performing, Jey and her dancers wear traditional saris. “I never wanted to Westernize them, I love saris for what they are,” she says.
Touring with M.I.A.: British musical artist M.I.A. has inspired Jey from a young age. “She’s also Tamil. Seeing someone who looked like me in hip hop made me think I could make it too.” After tweeting her and working with her on an Off-White fashion show, Jey was invited to join the rapper on her 2022 European tour.
Business-minded: Jey obtained a master’s degree in project management and entrepreneurship before she became a professional dancer. “It was important to learn how to negotiate contracts, market myself and deal with the business side of the industry.” This business know-how has helped her secure partnerships with brands such as Converse and Lancôme, dancing in their campaigns as an individual and as a member of Red Sauce collective, respectively.
What her mentor’s saying: “From the moment I met Usha, I knew she was a very motivated and smart person,” says Kanon Zouzoua, the founder of Ghetto-Style collective. “She has so much to give, so I invited
her to manage my international festival, Fusion Concept.”
When she’s not dancing: Jey enjoys playing badminton and futsal (a type of soccer). “Any sport you want to play,” she says, “I’ll come!”