Kumari Suraj has spent their life finding their identity through dance. Their father is South Asian and Afro-Caribbean, and their mother is Native American and European, and the cultural dances associated with their ethnic background have played a major role in their self-discovery.
As a child, Suraj made it a lifelong goal to learn as many dance styles as possible. To date, they have trained in 14. At 3 years old, they started taking ballet classes that were held on the military base their mother was stationed at in San Francisco. They were later exposed to Afro-diasporic dance styles, like West African and dancehall, through their family’s culture and the Matt Dishman Community Center in Portland, Oregon. At 9, they transitioned into hip-hop and street dance styles associated with their church youth group under the direction of Valery Bower (now current owner of Encore Performing Arts Center in Beaverton, Oregon). They toured and performed with the school until they were 17, at which point they were introduced to the world of breaking, popping, locking, waacking, vogue, and house dance.
It wasn’t until Suraj was an adult that they found classical Indian dance. “I wasn’t raised around my Indian culture, so as an adult yearning to understand my identity, I found Indian dance,” they say. At the time, they were dancing with a crew they founded called The Waackers, with a crew mate named Yoda Jones, who was trained in bharatanatyam. “She is a Black American girl who isn’t from India but grew up in [an Indian ashram in California],” Suraj says. “She shared my experience of feeling ‘othered’ in a space that didn’t belong to us fully. When she started teaching me the style, I began to cry because it’s in my blood.” Suraj immediately noticed similarities between the hand gestures found in bharatanatyam and waacking, as well as the precision found in both. “As a mixed-race person, I wanted to find the fusion that could exist between the two,” Suraj says. “I wanted to dive deeper into my own humanity by mixing a queer dance style with a classical Indian dance.” The result was Bollywaack, a new genre that they introduced to India through the television show “Dance Plus.” “I brought my dance team, House of Suraj, to Season 3 of the show, and it blew open the waacking scene in India. It showed Indian dancers that they can still love their cultural dance while fusing it with something new.”
As a dance educator, Suraj has taught for over 20 years across 42 different countries. They currently teach in London, UK, and in spring 2024, will be opening a London-based performance team focusing on artist development for dancers. “I love to watch someone in class light up because they understood a concept you taught,” they say. “I love to empower people to find and experience transformative change within themselves. I create safe spaces for my students. I acknowledge everyone where they are, whether they are plus-sized, slim, have a lack of mobility, have a disability, a language barrier, or anything else. I try to recognize my student’s needs and hold space for them.”
Go-to teaching warm-up: “I love Pilates. I choose it because it has longevity, and I want something I can carry into my senior years.”
Must-have teaching attire: “I wear New Balance, Nike, or Adidas shoes with custom orthotics. If I’m doing Bollywaack, I will wear more cultural clothing. If it’s a regular class, it will depend on my mood. I am nonbinary, so if I’m in a feminine mood, it will be more body-con and if I’m in a masculine mood, it will have more flow to it.”
Healing foods: “I’m mindful of what I put in my body. There are certain foods that help you regenerate cell growth and help you recover and prevent inflammation. I especially like Huel vegan protein shakes, as well as anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables.”
Favorite breakfast: “I like oatmeal. My family roasts oats in coconut oil and then adds the milk, and it changes the flavor to something really good.”
Beloved nondance activities: “I’m a singer and I make music. I also love being in nature, camping, hiking, and being in the forest. I also like live music events with friends and family.”
Ideal day off: “Having the space and freedom to be creative at my leisure is the true premium day off.”
Recommended reading: “A Practical Guide to Complex PTSD is a great book for teachers. It’s about compassionate strategies for healing childhood traumas. None of us come out of this world without experiencing some kind of trauma, and being able to heal ourselves is a great step into having fuller lives.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 1.26.24 to include information about Suraj’s current teaching role and plans for creating a performance team in future.