Paris-Based Usha Jey Leads a Vibrant Life as an Artist, Choreographer, Movement Director, and Dancer
Usha has been featured in campaigns for Converse and Lancome, worked with fashion brands such as Off-White and toured with artist M.I.A.
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Ushalini Jeyaseelan, also known as Usha Jey on her social media platforms, is a 26-year-old Tamil dancer, choreographer, and movement director based in Paris. She embarked on her journey at the age of 16 when she enrolled in Hip-Hop classes as a hobby. This eventually led her to learn Bharatanatyam at the age of 20. The idea of combining both art forms sparked in Usha's mind, and she went on to create Hybrid Bharatham—a dance style that seamlessly blends free and loose Hip-Hop movements with sharp and precise Bharatanatyam movements. Usha started creating videos, performing her self-created Hybrid Bharatham to popular rap songs by artists like Jack Harlow, Lil Wayne, and DaBaby. Today, Usha is a highly recognized professional dancer who has been featured in campaigns for Converse and Lancome, worked with fashion brands such as Off-White, met Virgil Abloh, and toured with artist M.I.A. However, this is just a glimpse of who Usha Jey really is, as her ongoing 10-year journey in the dance industry holds a deeper story.

Before delving into the interview, this was one of those surreal moments for me. I watched Usha's "What's Poppin Hybrid Bharatham EPISODE 3" video in 2020 and have been following her journey ever since. So, having the opportunity to interview and write about Usha through a passionate medium of mine was a full-circle moment. Through this personal anecdote, I hope to inspire readers to continue pursuing their passions against all odds, as you never know where it may lead you.

I had the privilege of interviewing Usha to learn more about her story and how she used her art to carve out a successful career as a professional dancer. I asked her about the beginning, middle, and current phases of her career. Here's what she had to say.

"How did you start your dance journey, and what does dance mean to you?"

Usha shared that she began her dance journey by enrolling in Hip Hop classes at the age of 16 during high school. She explains, "It all started when my friend and I were deciding which extracurricular activity to join. I wanted to do something related to sports, while she wanted to try Hip Hop and asked me to join her, so I did. To cut a long story short, she eventually stopped dancing, but I continued." Usha describes how Hip Hop ignited her love for dance as she started to appreciate the culture and gained self-confidence. 

"Since dance initially began as a hobby for you, how did it evolve into a career path, and when did you start pursuing it professionally?"

Usha explains, "At one point, my mentor invited me to join his collective called Ghetto Style. Through that experience, I started travelling and organizing hip-hop battles in various locations, including China and Ukraine, alongside my collective. During this time, I realized dance could be a career. When you're younger, seeing others succeed in the same field gives you the confidence and inspiration to believe it's possible. While I can't pinpoint the exact moment, it was around the age of 20 when I truly understood that dance could become more than a hobby.”

"I understand that you began your dance journey with hip-hop. What inspired you to combine hip-hop and Bharatanatyam?"

Usha started learning Bharatanatyam when she was 20 years old.

Shocked by Usha's response, I commented, "That's a late start." My comment stemmed from the understanding that Bharatanatyam is typically learned at a young age and practiced continuously as one grows older. However, I acknowledged that it's never too late to learn Bharatanatyam.

In response to my comment, Usha said, "I always wanted to do Bharatanatyam, so I don't care if it's late compared to others. I wanted to do it for myself. All I had to do was find the right Guru. When I did, I found myself in a class with 7-8-year-olds, while I was the only 20-year-old. But that didn't matter to me because I wanted to pursue it for my own fulfillment. This attitude of doing it for myself helped me be open to trying new things."

After practicing Bharatanatyam for a few years, Usha had the idea one night to experiment with blending Hip Hop, and Bharatanatyam moves in a single dance. She explained, "I don't like to call it a fusion because, in my creative process, I don't aim to mix the cultures. Instead, I strive to blend them together, switching between the styles while maintaining the essence of both. That's really important to me."

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Following up on Usha's response, I asked, "How did you blend two styles so seamlessly while respecting the essence of each art form?"

Usha explained that she began receiving comments online suggesting, "How would it look if you blended hip-hop and Bharatanatyam together?" Usha said, "When I kept seeing those comments repeatedly, I started wondering the same thing."

That's when Usha choreographed the first episode of Hybrid Bharatham to Dababy's song "Bop." She mentioned that she created the choreography in a single night. Usha shared, "I was so inspired because, for me, everything is like a game—both dance and life. This was a game where I had to ensure that I respected both styles without altering their essence. So, I enjoyed the challenge of this process. And when you enjoy the game, it becomes more authentic because you find joy in the entire process."

After Usha's first Hybrid Bharatham episode, she gained viral recognition. In her fourth Hybrid Bharatham episode, she danced to "One Hundred Thousand Flowers" by @ShanVincentPaul. The choreography and song combination conveyed the powerful story of the Tamil Genocide and its social implications. I asked Usha, "Why did you choose 'One Hundred Thousand Flowers' for your dance, and what were you hoping to achieve with this performance?"

Usha explains that when she first heard the track, it evoked strong emotions. "The way Shan was rapping and the words he used to address this topic, I could truly feel it. After the success of 'What's Poppin,' I felt like I had a lot of attention on me, so I wanted to create something that held personal significance. Even though I thought a post with an activist theme might not perform well, I still wanted to do it for myself because I had something to say, and it felt like people were listening now, which was important to me. When something carries personal meaning, the creative process becomes enjoyable because you genuinely want to do justice to your message. I truly cherished working on this episode as well."

As a follow-up, I asked Usha, "Do you personally feel a strong connection to telling the story of the Tamil Genocide? And what does that mean to you?"

Usha replies, "I feel a deep and unwavering connection to telling the story of the Tamil Genocide. My parents had to flee the country due to the Sinhalese oppression, and they ensured that we were aware of our history. it's crucial to continue discussing and shedding light on this topic. Understanding history is important, but being aware of the ongoing issues is equally vital. I find it fascinating to witness how individuals from the Tamil diaspora persistently address these matters and exert influence to ensure that people do not forget what transpired."

While Usha is a professional dancer, she has also obtained a Master's degree in Project Management and Entrepreneurship. I asked her, "Why did you decide to pursue this degree, especially as an artist?"

Usha explains that she is genuinely interested in business, particularly communication and marketing. She shares, "Even during my studies in entrepreneurship, I was aware that these skills would be beneficial in the field of arts. Negotiating contracts and managing one's own image and accounts are integral aspects of pursuing a career in the arts, which can be seen as a form of entrepreneurship. I knew that, regardless of what I did, I wanted to be involved in the arts on my own terms."

Usha's career took a significant turn when she started gaining recognition from major brands and labels, leading collaborations with Converse and Lancome, performing for Off-White Fashion Week, and touring with M.I.A. I asked Usha, "How does it feel to be surrounded by prominent figures in the entertainment and fashion industry?"

She said, "You have to cultivate a sense of gratitude and remain present in those moments, as they can easily pass you by if you're not paying attention."

While Usha's journey may seem like an easy uphill climb, she has always stayed true to her values, ensuring she understands her worth, integrity, and principles. I asked her, "Did you face challenges in breaking through barriers as a brown woman?"

Usha replied, "In the current generation, brands are making an effort to embrace diversity and appreciate the cultural perspectives individuals bring. I have been fortunate to work with brands that respect and value my culture. However, there were moments when certain organizations struggled with using the right terminology to describe our culture. An example is when organizations use the term "Bollywood" to describe Bharathanatyam. For me, it wasn't about losing a job; I had to ensure that my culture was respected. There were instances where I had to educate people about our culture. It's not solely about money; you must ensure you're treated well in these environments. If you find yourself in the wrong place, it's essential to have the courage to walk away."

At the end of the interview, I posed one final question to Usha, "If you could give one piece of advice to someone who aspires to pursue a career in the arts, what would it be?"

Usha shared her insight, saying, "Build a strong foundation. Seek out places that inspire you and immerse yourself in those environments. Don't be afraid to create what you truly desire. Stay true to your authentic artistry and avoid conforming to preconceived notions of what it should be. Embrace vulnerability in your art, as that is what resonates with people. When you're genuinely vulnerable with yourself, others will connect with you on a deeper level because you're authentically expressing yourself."

-Featured image from Usha Jey's converse campaign.

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Indojaa Sathiyaseelan
Toronto,  Canada
I have a versatile professional background in marketing, writing, and media. I am p...
I have a versatile professional background in marketing, writing, and media. I am p...
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