Karisma Jay, Owner of AbunDance Academy

My name is Karisma Jay and I’m from Brooklyn, New York. More so the Clinton Hill, Fort Greene area, but I’ve pretty much lived all over. I’m a performer, artist, teacher, and choreographer. I’m now getting into directing and writing scripts. But more than anything, I’m the proud owner and founder of AbunDance Academy. It’s a non-for-profit arts organization where students access their own abundance. It’s not just about dance. It’s more about life and how we can let everyone access what they truly want, whatever those goals are, through the arts.

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There are only so many places where it’s a safe space for Brown girls to go deeper and explore themselves. How do you feel AbunDance is creating a safe space in that way?

A lot of the movies that I watched growing up didn’t’ have any brown girls in them. When I would watch them, I would try to see myself in them.

I managed to get us at the King’s Theatre with our last show. 800 people came out to see our adaptation of Annie, the brown girl version. I wrote a script and in our adaptation, Annie grew up to become the first female Black president. It was amazing just to have brown little girls doing Swan Lake, incorporating all kinds of classics in our Annie story. We had Annie go to Copa Cabana, which was our salsa tribute. I had them emulating Celia Cruz. I just wanted to find ways to bring us to light in areas where we weren’t accepted before, and I think that’s creating a safe space for them.

Do we need to create brown adaptations of the classics?

I kind of like re-writing history and emulating things that I loved watching. To be honest, aside from using the music, it was really an “abundant” version of Annie. It wasn’t like a mainstream “I want to fit us in” type of thing.

How have you seen AbunDance positively affect the little girls’ confidence?

I’ve watched all of my little students blossom and end up feeling like, “I can do anything because Ms. Karisma and my other teachers told me so.” There are no boundaries here. It warms my heart to see them on a stage that they probably wouldn’t have been allowed to be on, at Kings Theater. To watch them command it and take it seriously is a true testament to them developing their confidence and feeling like they can do anything.

Go beneath the surface: What is your real hope with AbunDance?

Accessing whatever it is that they want in their world and then going out and creating it. I know that when I’m seeing a little girl passé her hardest and committing to it, that lets me know that when she grows up, and something confronts her that she may not know how to deal with, she’ll have that confidence to try and figure it out. It’s really about life. It’s about conquering fear and conquering doubt.

You’re Afro-Latina. I recently saw a post of a Dominican woman who really despised being called “Black”. What has been your experience?

My mom raised me to know my [Black] culture and to be constantly thinking about that. I went to somewhat of a Black pride private school where we learned how to embrace our culture. At home, my grandmother spoke Spanish (my family is from Panama). What’s interesting is that when my family got to this country, they wanted to so badly be apart this country that there was a slight disconnect. I oddly enough had to learn Spanish in school. I had to kind of come from the backend of finding my Latina pride and heritage because I didn’t have that culture at home.

I’ve always had an affinity to Celia Cruz and the Spanish culture. But, to be looked at and questioned like “Are you Spanish? Are you Black? What are you?”, I ended up feeling like I don’t think I need to fit into anything. I’m just me. I’ve traveled to Latin America, and I saw some of the richest, dark skin people in Puerto Rico. So, to see that comment by that girl in discourages me. Now if you want me to be honest, when I researched our history in college, I learned that everyone is from Africa [laughs]. So to even hear something like that, it’s like “no, you’re Black boo”.

Your experience might be that you were raised estranged from the “Black” experience. I wasn’t taught to be “Latina” when I was little because we were wanting so bad to be American. So I can understand that perspective.

We all have a bit of assumption as to how a black, white, latina, or whomever person should look.

I mean I’ve been to Brazil and heard people speak in these thick, thick accents and I felt like they looked like my Black American cousins. I know that I don’t “look” like your go-to Spanish girl, but I don’t even know what that go-to look is anymore. None of us do.

I think that we’re trying to keep everything in a box so we can contain it. But, I don’t think we can quantify heritage and ethnicity that way anymore.

What I will say is that I don’t think a good amount of people from various backgrounds knew for a while that everybody looked different in their particular cultures. It’s just now really coming to a point where people are starting to become aware and conscious about true ethnicity and race. And that’s a good thing. We need to be open to the diversity in our own cultures.