Pooja Uberoi is the founder and Artistic Director of IKIGAI USA. She is globally recognized for Bollywood dance and has been responsible for some of the biggest Bollywood musicals in India as well as in the US. Pooja is currently expanding and setting up her yoga and dance school in Florida. In addition to that, she is working on creating and training instructors for her new style BollyJazz.
Uberoi has definitely made a name for herself in the dance community and continues to expand her reach and influence. Recess caught up with her to learn more about her journey and her love for movement.
Recess: How did you start your career as a Dance Director? How has that path led you to teach?
Pooja Uberoi (PU): I In fact started out as a professional dancer and trained in Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Ballet, Jazz, Gaga technique, and Modern dance. This led me to teach and share my knowledge in India as these dance forms were rare to find when I started. I have been teaching for over 15 years and the natural progression from there was to start Choreographing and creating Musical Theater shows for Broadway-style Bollywood Musicals. I started assisting my teacher Ashley Lobo In India for Musical theater and that is where I learned how to create big productions, use lights, coordinate costumes, manage dance teams, and create shows for live audiences.
I then went on to choreograph my first solo musical for Kingdom of Dreams called Wizwits, an English musical for children based on Wizard of Oz. This led me to create many more musicals for touring shows like A Passage to Bollywood for Israel and The Big Fat Brown Show in New York. Soon I started directing full-length musicals starting with one for an audience of 2000 in NJPAC, New Jersey which had Hasan Minhaj performing too.
I realized the power and potential of dance really early in my career and decided to share the knowledge and joy of dance with everyone even if they don’t want to take up dance professionally.
Recess: If you could describe Bollywood dance in a few words what would you say?
PU: Bollywood dancing is a colorful, dynamic, and highly theatrical dance style seen in Indian films. It combines classical forms of dance including traditional Indian, folk, salsa, and belly dance while also incorporating more contemporary western forms such as hip hop, jazz, and funk. Classical Indian dance incorporates two basic elements – Abhinaya (expression) and Nritta (pure dance). Nritta is displayed through rhythms and physical movements to musical phrases – it is a dance in its purest form. Bollywood Dance is essentially used in Bollywood movies and created like a Broadway-style song with glamorous costumes and a lot of expression and drama is involved. Bollywood Dance is something everyone can relate to irrespective of where they come from.
Recess: How does this style of dance liberate women? How does it make them feel powerful?
PU: Bollywood, as a dance style has a lot of freedom attached to it, and women are not expected to have a certain body type, unlike in ballet, where women are expected to have long athletic thin-framed bodies
In my Bollywood classes, I allow and emphasize women to come in as if they were a child and drop all titles and inhibitions they carry with them in day-to-day life.
Bollywood dance forces you to smile, have fun, and interact with other people in the room as a result of which women naturally leave the class confident and feeling good about themselves.
If women are to follow their “inner compulsion to be individuals”, they have to throw off their shackling inheritance of obedience, whether to the puritanical tenets of old-school feminism or to the sentimentalized duties of marriage and motherhood. On the dance floor, as these women shimmy their shoulders and swivel their hips, they are released into a brief but deeply subversive world – a world of freedom
It took a woman of many talents and powers to triumph over evil in Indian mythology – Goddess Durga. This story from Indian mythology is of particular significance simply because it reminds us as a society, of the boundless vigor and tenacity of a woman, provided she is able to develop, and hone her skills and that is my main mission through dance.
Women mirror this trait in everyday life, smoothly transitioning from wife, to mother, employee to sister. This dexterity ought to be treasured, celebrated, and appreciated much more than it perhaps is. Dance is the easiest and fastest way for women to connect with themselves and lose themselves in the movement for that one hour.
“In my Bollywood classes I allow and emphasize women to come in as if they were a child and drop all titles and inhibitions they carry with them in day to day life.” -Pooja
What are students saying about your classes? Any memorable transformations?
PU: I have had women from all walks of life and counties and abilities come into my class and the best part is they all always go back happy. Bollywood doesn’t discriminate. They all love the classes and go home happy, excited for life, and with a sense of purpose. But I want to mention one special dancer whose words made me cry but at the same time motivated me to continue my mission to help women.
One of my students was suffering from major depression and body shaming issues and I remember she attended only one class with me in New York (the next day we went into lockdown however I continued teaching online and she was always there). Much later she mentioned that she only attended that one class to be saved. If it was not for these Bollywood classes I would not survive the pandemic.
These are her words verbatim – “Pooja your dance classes have honestly saved my life! Your classes always bring me such joy and freedom! Your classes have helped me with my fight against depression and have helped my self-esteem so much! Thank you for everything Pooja! I am so thankful.”
I put everything at stake for moments like these and continue to teach every day.