The Choreographer and Activist Changing Lives Through Liberated Dance
Kumari Suraj can only be described as a force of fabulous, sassy power. Combining performance and dance with their dedication to raising LGBTQ+ awareness, Kumari's leadership continues to empower an ever-growing community both online and in the 42 countries (and counting) that they've taught in.
Tune into the interview above (from 31 minutes in) or read on to know more.
Having been on a journey of exploring fifteen different dance styles, Kumari is most renowned for the queer dance of Waacking - a club culture dance style created in the gay clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era. Distinguished by rotational arm movements, mystical hand flicks, power posing and expressiveness, this style is typically done to 70s disco music - something which Kumari describes as being part of their history. "My Dad danced on Soul Train with my Aunt in the seventies and my Mum was a Disco Housewife - she was fab!" This led to Kumari falling in love with the music and the dance culture that it nurtured, telling us how "I've spent the past twenty years teaching people how to be open and free with this dance."
I've spent the past twenty years teaching people how to be open and free with this dance
It was back in 2007 that Kumari first came to the UK, sprinkling their Waacking magic into the minds of eager dancers. During this time, they built the first ever Waacking crew in London and have had the joy of witnessing the evolution of the dance style within the growing community here. Describing their return to UK soil as feeling "like coming home", Kumari's presence has coincided with their recent single release 'Disco Housewife' - a non-stop energetic masterpiece that gets anyone and everyone moving! They explain how the song is for everyone who loves the culture - "You can be a disco housewife/daddy/spouse or disco houselover! It's anyone who loves disco and club culture". For Kumari, this love for the club started when they were 14 years old and they don't expect it to stop anytime soon; "I'll probably be that old theydy in the corner, at 80 years old, still pumping it! Living with the children, because I love the safety and sanctity of club culture, and I want to contribute to it by Waacking and creating more music for us to dance to".
I love the safety and sanctity of club culture, and I want to contribute to it by waacking and creating more music for us to dance to
As a queer, non-binary person, a crucial part of Kumari's life is their activism raising awareness of LGBTQ+ identity. They tell us how it comes naturally to them to speak up and educate, explaining how "my maternal grandmother was also a lesbian and I grew up watching her activism, seeing how she took care of community and it seems like a no brainer; we take care of our people, we take care of ourselves and create spaces where we can just enjoy!". This curation of space is something Kumari fostered through their own love for dancing. Having started when they were three, Kumari credits Flash Dance for being a source of inspiration; "it was the first time you saw breaking on screen - it was street dance and studio dance in one". Combined with the fact that the lead actress, Jennifer Beals, was mixed race like Kumari, they tell us how "I was sold!". Having been "made in Korea" to parents of Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, Native American, and European heritage, Kumari's identity continues to influence their work as well as their personal narrative today.
We take care of our people, we take care of ourselves and create spaces where we can just enjoy
Throughout our conversation, it's clear that the confidence Kumari carries on stage is also present in their day to day life. When asking if it's always been this way, they explain how "I cultivated that. Like the rest of us, we all have a journey through insecurity, especially in teenage bodies, trying to figure out who we are in this world for ourselves rather than how other people may perceive us or impose on us". While the past has not always made this easy, Kumari reflects on how healing trauma has helped them find peace and be able to be grounded in who they are today. Encouraging others to feel the same is something that exudes from their social media presence, using platforms such as Instagram and YouTube to share new ideas and educational content around gender and sexual identity. This has been particularly important "because I'm ethnically ambiguous and my gender is ambiguous." They look down at their chest and let out a big laugh before continuing "Because of the titties, [people] think that I'm all femininity and flowers. But I feel like, instead of being militant or aggressive at people's ignorance, I can just tell stories and make it entertaining in ways that are easily digestible. Because a lot of people don't understand".
I feel like, instead of being militant or aggressive at people's ignorance, I can just tell stories and make it entertaining in ways that are easily digestible
Discussing the pros and cons of labels, Kumari reflects on how "we're in a place of dismantling a lot of structures that have not allowed us to be who we are. And I feel like the more we share about labels, the more it will create a greater understanding so that eventually we won't need labels anymore and we can celebrate eachother for being humans". For Kumari, this is a deeply personal experience, having countless experiences of being put in a box; "I wanted to crawl out of all the boxes and I think that's one of the reasons I do what I do. I firmly believe that by sharing these things, it is not a way to put us in a box but instead, to open our minds to get us out of these boxes".
By travelling around the world, Kumari continues to spread these philosophies, using dance as a entry point for education. Most notably is the movement of Waacking and Ballroom festivals that they've created in multiple continents including India, Europe and the US. "I saw there was a need for more spaces with this dance and in 2010 I was able to create the first Waacking festival in the world - LA's International Waack/Punk/Pose Festival (Waackfest) I'm very proud of that." Since then, younger generations have created their own festivals which Kumari is now being invited to judge and witness through Europe and beyond. "This wasn't possible for the generation I grew up in, and it's fab to see what people are doing now - curating space to keep the culture alive!"
It's fab to see what people are doing now and curating space to keep the culture alive!
With such achievements under their belt, and with an ever blossoming portfolio of work, Kumari credits their discipline to a powerful combination of passion and determination. But a crucial element has also been to "get out of my own way. As artists, we're hypocritical - obviously. But being able to stand in my power and determine my own value, rather than what someone else says is my value, was huge". By stopping to compare themself to others, and being centered in the knowledge that everyone has their own path, Kumari explains how they started to trust life. "Being patient with that process is a challenge because our society teaches us 'your only somebody if you accomplish this by a certain age, or you have this in your back account'. When really we don't need to subscribe to anyone else's path". This has been a game changer for Kumari, who describes themself as being "one of those people who would beat myself up for not accomplishing something and not reflect on the impact I've had on the world, changing lives and opening spaces for people to find who they are".
We end the conversation by discussing Kumari's inspiration behind their creativity - "Nature is my source. Everything I do is inspired by trees - from fashion to dance to decisions I make. I can go touch them and feel their energy. I think that's part of my Native American side, being connected to earth and earth magic". It has shaped some of their most renowned choreography, specifically a performance on Bollywood television, and continues to shape the world they foster. Alongside this, Kumari shares how a huge driving force is culture, their family, and art. "I'm an art nerd, a art history buff. So a combination of those things really sets me off!". With Tina Turner as an icon (who hit fame in her forties), Kumari tells us how they aim to "live my life, regardless of my age, and just enjoy the people around me and the spaces I occupy!" With such a clear intension, we watch with admiration as Kumari continues creating more space to do what they're set out to do - giving others appreciation to keep the culture alive and kicking!
When do you feel most confident?
When I'm naked
What key experience has shaped you positively?
Growing up with my family and having them affirm all of my identities.
One dream you wish to come true?
I want to buy a cabin, grow my hair down to the earth and be the witch in the woods who everyone comes to for magical spells and healing! Naked in nature, growing my own marijuana, food and fruits - that's the dream! Everything I do is inspired by trees - that is my source.
One law you want to change or a cause that's close to your heart?
Let people control their reproductive rights. Stop fucking with Drag Queens and trans people. Let children be children and encourage their childhood. That's more than one but that's what fucks with me right now! But progress is being made. I just found out that California is the first state to have a Transgender History Month.
Best thing about being you?
I'm really loving and I've got bomb ass pussy!
Interview by Bethany Burgoyne @bxsassy2
A message of appreciation to our Sassy sibling - Cyd Eva of Pattern Nation for connecting the dots many moons ago