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Meet Nidhi Reddy Kakulawaram

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nidhi Reddy Kakulawaram.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I started dancing Bharatanatyam (Indian Classical dance form) at five years old. From a very young age, I just had an affinity to dance. On my 1st birthday, there’s a video of me jumping around to a Bollywood song. I trained in Bharatanatyam for ten years and completed my Arangetram, a 3-hour solo performance with live musicians demonstrating your mastery of the dance form.

Parallelly, I danced Bollywood under Nakul Dev Mahajan, the ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Bollywood Choreographer. I became a principle dancer at Nakul’s company in high school.

In high school, I also began branching out to other art forms while studying to get into a competitive college. I wanted to challenge myself since I had already mastered Indian dance forms. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a professional career in dance and knew I had to cross-train to make sure I was versatile.

I just graduated from college (class of 2020) as a Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholar from UC Berkeley as a Computer Science Major. At the end of my freshman year in college, I became an NFL cheerleader for the San Francisco 49ers. It was my life long dream to dance professionally. I never imagined it would happen so soon as an 18 years old. I was the youngest on the team. I stayed with the SF 49ers for two amazing seasons.

My junior year of college, I decided to attend an NBA dance audition for the Sacramento Kings. The team appealed to me because their dance style was transitioning to more hip hop instead of a typical pom/cheer style most see in the NBA/NFL. I knew that this would push me to be a better dancer and would come with different challenges than my previous NFL experience. I had the opportunity to dance in the first-ever NBA India Games in Mumbai, India. I got to embrace both the Indian and American in me doing the thing I love the most.

Unfortunately, my season with Kings was cut short due to COVID-19.

This is all while taking rigorous Computer Science courses at UC Berkeley (it’s ranked #1 for Computer Science in the country) and holding various research positions. My hardwork paid off when I got into the competitive and accelerated one year Master’s program at UC Berkeley for Computer Science this Spring. I will get another shot at graduation next year since I didn’t get to walk this year due to COVID-19.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
When I entered the industry, there are few to no Indian women dancing professionally in the NFL & NBA. To this day, I could count on one hand the number of South Asian women that are currently dancing or have danced in the NFL/NBA. I felt pretty out of place, especially coming into it so young. It was also difficult explaining it to friends and my conservative family since this is definitely not the average part-time job that college students hold. However, everyone came around pretty quickly and was proud of what I accomplished, especially with everything I’m balancing.

It was definitely taxing to maintain such a rigorous course load when large chunks of my time were going to practices and games. In addition, as a professional dancer I am responsible for my own conditioning and choreography retention outside of practices and games.

When I heard about the fifth year M.S. program for Computer Science(CS) students my freshman year of college, I knew it was something I wanted to shoot for. I was apart of world-renowned CS research labs doing cutting edge research and doing software engineering internships in the summer to make myself a competitive candidate. I was leading a double life. One with extreme physical demand, big hair, and a bright smile and another staying up late nights in the library debugging code for hours.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
In regards to myself, I am most proud of how I’m breaking boundaries. Women can be multi-faceted and diverse in their interests. I enjoy embracing the femininity in myself while dancing and pushing the envelope in a male-dominated field like tech.

Also, the boundaries I am breaking in entertainment as an Indian/South Asian woman. We rarely see someone of my heritage represented on the screen or stage. And if we do, it’s someone who is more white passing with Eurocentric features. I, on the other hand, look very Indian with my long nose, swarthier skin tone, and thick hair.

I want to continue changing the status quo for South Asian representation in this industry. We don’t always want to remain behind the desk or computer. Sometimes we crave to be in the limelight too. We want to see people that look like us represented in the media. We want to see our families, cultures, and issues represented. Representation Matters!!

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Determination, grit, and planning. Once I have a goal in mind, I make a plan and then a backup plan and then a backup plan to that and so on. HAHA! Life doesn’t always go as expected and I try to prepare myself for that. But sometimes things REALLY don’t go as expected (*cough cough COVID-19) and you have to learn to be flexible and pivot.

DON’T GIVE UP. Even when there’s days when you feel like you can’t do it. Pick yourself up and keep going towards your goal. You might not immediately get the result you want but eventually, if you keep grinding, you will get there.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Luke Cheng (for black NBA court photos), Paige Dall (NBA India photo), Lindsay Rosenberg (NFL photo)

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