In the Pooja Uberoi interview, the “Queen of Bollywood Dance” talks about her global career directing and choreography Bollywood productions, and her dream of bringing authentic Bollywood to Broadway.
Uberoi is a globally recognized Bollywood dance director and choreographer. She teaches Bollywood actors to dance, and has directed and choreographed some of the biggest Bollywood musicals ever staged in India and the United States. She is also the creator of BollyJazz, a fun fusion of dance styles.
The Pooja Uberoi Interview
The artist spoke with New York Latin Culture Magazine Editor Keith Widyolar in July 2021.
Who is Pooja Uberoi?
I’ve been a dancer since the age of three. My earliest memory is dancing. I grew up to be a choreographer and teacher for many musicals, kid shows, movies and television. I have trained in Jazz, Ballet, Contemporary, Bollywood and Indian Classical Dance too.
Today I’m trying to spread the movement of dance all over the world. I started with India and have taught in New York, Israel, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Florida.
You’re a New Yorker, but where are you from originally?
I’m was born in Tamil Nadu [southern India] and grew up in New Delhi. Later I moved to Mumbai to work in the Bollywood film industry. From Mumbai, I came to New York.
How is South Asia connected with the Latin world?
South Asians and Latins have a great connection. We both love food. We love dancing. South Asians and Latins are both loud and very expressive. We like to have fun and don’t try to control our excitement for life. Food, dance and music connect South Asians and Latins.
Spanish Flamenco has a big connection with Indian folk dance. We use outfits, especially skirts, as props in Indian dance and you see the same thing in Flamenco. If you want to get really technical, the whole idea of moving your hips is very common between both Latin dance and Indian dance.
We’re also connected in the Caribbean through the indentured workers who came after the end of human slavery. That’s why we have good curry in the West Indies.
What is Bollywood?
Bollywood is a mix of many dances. It started as music and dance in the film industry to provide a little side entertainment. Over the years it has grown into something much more organized.
Initially it was just music and songs to express romantic love. But over the years, it has taken influences from Hip-hop, Jazz, Latin and Arabic dance. All of this is fused into songs in Bollywood movies. Most Bollywood actors are required to train formally in dance to perform in movies.
We have taken those songs and those moves and created a dance called Bollywood Dance over the last fifty years or so. We’ve been teaching Bollywood as a fusion of all the dance styles.
India is one of the great ancient civilizations. It’s interesting how things came out of India and also entered India. We are mixes of each other.
Yes. Western countries adopted Yoga and Indians adopted Jazz and Hip-hop styles and brought that into Bollywood.
You did some work on Kingdom of Dreams. What was that?
Kingdom of Dreams is the only Broadway theater in India. They started creating Broadway style productions with armies of singers and dancers, a crew of 60+ with modern equipment, aerial artists, and Broadway-style technical features. They created three musicals and I was part of two of them which ran for about 3,000 shows before I moved to New York.
They created a show called “Zangoora” [the first Bollywood musical theatre]. They created a show called “Jhumroo,” then they created a kid’s show based on “The Wizard of Oz” called “Wizwits.” I worked on “Chumroo” and “Wizwits.”
I never made the connection before, but Bollywood theatre is really Indian Broadway.
What is Danceworx?
Danceworx was the first school I joined to train. I started dancing at the age of three doing Indian classical dance. I didn’t enjoy it then, but my mother wanted me to learn. Every Indian who wants to be a dancer does classical training, just like you would do Ballet here. Then you move to Contemporary, Pop or Jazz styles.
In college I saw a group creating dance musicals. The company was called Danceworx. When I saw it I thought that is what I want to be a part of. I realized the importance of Ballet, Jazz and formal dance training to become a professional dancer. Those were my initial years of training, but I was with the company for thirteen years.
It’s the only Jazz dance school and one of the biggest schools for formal dance training in India. It was the only school with a contemporary dance company that toured and traveled all over the world.
I started as a dancer. Then I was a teacher. I was also a board member. I headed one of their biggest studios with 800 students. I went on to become the general manager of the company’s head office in Mumbai. I played many roles. I was also the choreographer for the touring musical “Passage to Bollywood.” I was the costume director. I did a lot in that company.
It sounds like you have the experience of putting on a Broadway show already.
I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of Bollywood. I learned my production, direction, lights, costume, sound, handling a company, teaching, everything in Danceworx.
What brought you to New York?
Love. I got married and moved here.
What have you done in New York City?
When I moved to New York, I started teaching my own classes. I had studios in Manhattan, New Jersey, Astoria Queens and Brooklyn. While teaching, I started to choreograph musicals. I worked with a musical called “The Big Fat Brown Show.”
I directed a Broadway-style musical for New Jersey Performing Arts Center for the 500th anniversary of one of the Indian gurus, Guru Nanak. He’s a leader of the Sikh culture.
What do you do with NYC Dance Week?
I started as a volunteer. They said they wanted to improve the diversity of dance in New York City. There is no better city than New York to see any dance style in the world.
I joined them in 2017 and saw that there really wasn’t enough diversity. They only had contemporary or Ballet companies. So I started as a curator for their performance night. I created a show called “Funkar” which gives performance opportunities to emerging dance companies in New York.
The challenge was to get dance styles from all genres, not just Ballet and Contemporary. Currently I produce the NYC Dance Week festival. I work with over 50 studios in New York that offer classes during our festivals.
We have big names such as Alvin Ailey, Gibney Dance, Peridance, Mark Morris Dance Center in the festival. We also hold a free kid’s “dancer for a day” program where we give every child an opportunity to live like a dancer for a day. We offer a scholarship to one child for one year of dance training.
What is a day in a dancer’s life?
Professional dancers wake up around 7am and head over to our first morning class which usually starts at 8am. It’s much earlier than the life of a person who goes to an office. We’ll start with a Ballet class, then go into a Conditioning class, and a Jazz class. We train for about five hours and get a break for lunch.
In the evening we teach classes from 5pm to 9pm. This is most days. Some days when you have a show coming up, you squeeze in an extra hour for rehearsal, maybe early in the morning or during lunch. There are days when we have to come back after teaching all our classes for rehearsals at night. Then we travel and perform.
You work as hard as investment bankers.
I think we work harder than them. Dancers are physically, mentally and emotionally totally involved. There is no part of your body that is free. You cannot just sit and breathe or relax with a meal. You’re always on the go. It’s more demanding of your entire person.
What did you do for Dolly Parton’s Dollywood?
When I started working with musicals in India, I worked on a show called “Namaste India.” In New York I noticed there was a dearth of Bollywood. We have still never had a Bollywood musical on Broadway.
They say that problems are just a way for you to create opportunity. This was a problem and I want to do something about it. I reached out to a lot of companies I work with and tried to get them to perform Bollywood. We have Bollywood musicals here, but they are performed by Americans. I want to get an authentic musical performed by South Asians.
I reached out to a lot of theaters. We were lucky with Dollywood. They signed us for a 102-show deal at Dollywood Parks. We also extended the tour to other U.S. theaters and Canada in 2019.
We did the musical’s opening night with Dolly Parton. She is fantastic. I was the curator and tour manager for that show. I hope to get more artists from India to perform here and showcase real Indian artists in the U.S. in the future.
What is Ikigai?
When I moved to Mumbai, I shared an apartment with one of my teachers from Japan. There I saw the life of a true Japanese person. I was really enamored by Japanese culture. I started reading this book “Ikigai.” I learned that Ikigai means to live your passion and reason for being, the reason that makes you get up every morning.
I totally relate to this. I never have Monday blues and always want to wake up and dance. Ikigai also means that you should be able to follow your passion and earn money from it. I’m also trying to change that in my Indian culture because dance was not seen as a profession. It’s not seen as something you can make money and survive with. All over the world, people expect artists to be poor. Most artists relate to that, but I’m trying to change that with my company and that’s why I named it Ikigai USA.
Ikigai meaning your passion and a state of being is my artistic dance company.
Are you the creator of BollyJazz?
Yes BollyJazz is a Bollywood class with a hint of Jazz in it. I trained in Ballet and Jazz when I was in India. I never want to let go of that training. I started teaching Bollywood classes here, but wanted to mix in my Jazz, so I created a dance form and a dance class based on the principles of Jazz and Bollywood dance.
Bollywood looks like so much fun. There are sad moments, but then everyone is happy again.
I try and play some pop songs so everybody can relate to songs they like. I try to infuse both the styles. It’s more relatable and I can reach more people than just South Asians.
What is special about your Wear Ikigai clothing line?
This is another line I started because I do a lot of Yoga and dance. I wanted to create something you can wear for Yoga, dance and can live in. Leisure wear is so popular now. You can go to the grocery store, a class, and lunch or dinner in movement wear.
I created something you can wear anywhere. You don’t have to change from a class when you are going out. I also created this to fund a scholarship program that I’m running for kids in New York and India who cannot afford dance education.
I want to offer scholarship classes to them and be able to support my company through Wear Ikigai. I work with an organization called Dance Wave. We select kids to work with the scholarship program.
Is it important for children to have arts and dance education while they are growing up?
Yes. I think that’s really important because of my own story. When I finished school at seventeen I just watched television all day. I thought, “This is it?” I’m done with school but what’s the point of working and doing so much when you have to die.
I stumbled across dance and it saved my life. If it wasn’t for dance, I did not see a point in working, earning money and living the whole process of life. Today my perspective is very different. I live my life because of dance.
An arts education stimulates a part of the brain which takes over and gets them addicted to this art form. I think that addiction to the arts is better than any other form of addiction, so if we offer this to kids, they can create a better world for themselves and everybody else.
If you could give the world one wish, what would it be?
I would remove all the hate, create more love, and create more art because there is so much to life. I wish we could learn to love like the animals do in nature.