Kuchipudi Dancer: Kavitha Cheedalla

Radhika Kowtha-Rao
April 6, 2015
Kavitha Cheedalla

Classical dance (of any form) requires huge amounts of dedicated practice, effort, focus and determination to see it through. The technique of dance demands a concentration, a willingness to abide by the stringent rules and principles for accuracy and tradition to be upheld. When a child learns it, it seems like an easier absorption, and to a large extent, is. The age, the flexibility of body, the mind-space and the simplicity and stress free student life encourages and makes learning a simpler, faster experience.

Introduce the rigor of classical dance to an adult, and it takes on a whole new dimension.

However, something is to be said of passion and childhood dreams and realizing and recognizing opportunity and seizing it to line all your ducks in a row and then well, achieving it. It’s a childish pleasure and happiness, I assure you.

Kuchipudi is the classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh. Made popular by Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, back in the 60s, this is a detailed, expressive form of rhythmic dancing set to music and story telling. Mastergaru as he is fondly and popularly called was the embodiment and authority of this artform and I was and am fortunate to have learnt a few years under his guidance back in Madras (Chennai). He has many exemplary students who carry on the torch, and one such is Guru Mrinalini Sadananda who started a dance school: Kalamandapam in Springfield VA in the 90s, and under whose guidance I re-started in 2000.

Today, am introducing to you, Kavitha Cheedalla, a Kuchipudi dancer who started as an adult along with her daughters and now performs, and teaches in Northern Virginia at Kalamandapam. She is an example of what determination, grit and passion can bring together when the situation has made itself conducive for it. I’ve known Kavitha since the early 90’s, through common friend circles and then later on as part of the Kuchipudi dance school run by our Guru Mrinalini Sadananda in Virginia. We learnt, and then taught together for a while, and I have seen Kavitha grow as a graceful accomplished dancer and it gives me great pleasure to write about her. Her passion and devotion to this art form comes through in many ways.

Read her story: Kavitha Cheedalla


Kavitha Cheedalla


So, let’s start at the beginning! How, when did you start here in the US? 

In June 1998, I started learning as an adult in a summer camp with Madhavapeddi Murthy master.  I still remember that day. I just went to admit my girls in the camp. I had previously mentioned to Subhash uncle (our Guru’s brother and a popular wonderful violinist) that I always wanted to learn and he casually told me, “Why don’t you join?” so I did.

Where did the enthusiasm come from? What made you jump in? 

I had always wanted to learn growing up. I learned from Mahankali master in our town (in Andhra Pradesh) for a month or so when I was 8 years old. After that, I saw master garu around town, and he would always ask me, “Why did you stop coming?” I also admired two of my friends in high school who were dancers. I started again because I always wish I had continued when I was little. I didn’t continue as my parents were not too keen, school and other things took over my time, and these classes got lost. 

So it’s safe to say that it is not a new passion but an old dream? One from childhood? 

Yes! An old childhood dream, of course. ☺

It’s such an incredibly deep happiness am sure! Tell me, how was it to start as an adult?

Starting as an adult was very tough because the body does not cooperate as it would for a young girl. There is an enormous strain on the limbs and mind because our postures are not perfect or right most of the time. Also I had many distractions and obligations: job, cooking, house work, leaving my husband home alone while the daughters and I went away for hours together on Sunday mornings for class.

 I agree. It is hard to keep at it, when your thighs, legs and back hurts with staying in posture and moving them to the rhythm. How did you stick with it in the initial stages?

I was able to stick with it because of the encouragement from my guru, Mrinalini aunty. I also had little roles in the ballets which made me very excited and proud of the little accomplishments.  I was lucky that I worked in a school system and had summers off, so I got to do summer camp every year for about 8 years or so. That helped a lot because of the daily practices, and when you do something everyday, it only makes you stronger. 

 So true! I know that you are a huge advocate of practice. How many hours do you spend on practice?

Initially there was no set number of hours. Whenever I got a chance I would practice alone or with other friends. Now I practice 4- 5 times weekly to keep up with all dances and to keep my energy levels strong. Practice is what helps me remember what I have learned and helps keep me in shape. It’s the memory to remember the sequence, and also our body has memory, and we have to keep refreshing it for it come with ease. 

 How was your first performance on stage? Tell me about it 🙂

I was very nervous and scared about whether I will be able to do a good job. I first played the role of Guhi (guha’s wife) in Ramayanam. The scene was taking Lord Rama and Lakshmana on a boat to get to Sita. Even though we practiced so many times, it is a different story when you get on the stage. The lights, the pressure, the makeup, and the adrenaline to be on stage and to not freeze even knowing the routine well is a challenge. After the performance, I was so happy and proud listening to everyone’s compliments.


 Regarding learning, you speak with such enthusiasm and live it when during practice and class, would you encourage picking up and starting to learn as an adult? What are the differences you find as opposed to starting as a child?

Yes, I would definitely encourage anyone who wants to learn at any age. It is super important to keep practicing daily or 2- 3 times a week. The initial stages are very hard. Takes a lot of co-ordination, of the hands, legwork, hands, mudras and the changes along with expressions and posture. It takes couple of years to get the basics and the feeling of confidence. I would think it is definitely easier learning as a kid because you don’t need to worry about other things. You can give all your time to dance, but most kids don’t realize that, and that’s just the way life is. They cross that stage and then realize that only when looking back. 

 If we take up a hobby or a goal, it usually eats up into our hours and life. Did you have to make any kind of adjustments at home because of dance? 

Not a lot of adjustments, since it was just Sunday classes, except when we used to rehearse for dance ballets. For ballet rehearsals, we stayed 4- 6 extra hours on weekends. I always made sure that I had cooked for my husband. I slowly got more and more involved and now I have a lot more responsibilities. I have very nice, understanding husband who also helps me with accounts and also backstage during ballets. He’s been very supportive during all these years and has always encouraged me to do what I love and enjoy, and that is to dance, perform and at the school. 

Kavitha and Ravinder

Looks like behind every happy and successful woman, there is a man who supports her and fills the gaps at home. Like Sheryl Sandberg mentions and celebrates the #LeaninTogether, where the man encourages the woman to go after her dream! 🙂  

What about the physical demands and challenges of learning and dancing as an adult?

Well, you must keep yourself fit. You must eat right and sleep well. It takes discipline to watch what you are eating, and keep yourself in shape. Aerobic exercise and strengthening (abs and upper arms etc) are all involved, and you realize that with time, that the body gets used to the rigor and we build stamina, and because of the exercise, there is the endorphins that make you so happy and pleased with yourself, just like any other exercise. Body movements are easier when you practice everyday. When you take a break, it is harder to get back on, but the body remembers and with practice, it comes back.

Great! Let’s talk about (y)our Guru. 🙂

My guru, Mrinalini Sadananda , is a very enthusiastic, exciting, and encouraging person in dance and in my life. I am where I am in dance because of my guru’s encouragement. I remember practicing so hard for the Lord Brahma role in one of the ballets. Even when I played the role of Narada (my very first solo role) for Venkateswara Vaibhavam, aunty did not stop giving me practice until she was sure that I got it. I also want to thank all our visiting gurus Pasumarthy Vithal, Sathyapriya Ramana, Dugakka, Balakka, Devarkaonda Srinivas, Chinta Siva and Bhagavathula Srinivas! They all taught me and helped me improve.

 When did you graduate to teaching?

I don’t think we graduate, and stop learning. We are always learning, especially in dance. Dance is like an ocean (samudram); there is always more to learn. We learn so many different things from different teachers and even when we teach.  Aunty encouraged me to teach beginners around 2003.

 Teaching is a special skill and talent, and I have always believed that just because someone is a good performer doesn’t make them a good teacher and vice versa. Not always at least. What do you think? 

It depends on the person. For me, teaching helped me become a better dancer. When you teach, you are perfecting the student, which helps you correct yourself. I would say they are related. I love teaching because it makes me proud and gives me the satisfaction of sharing what I learned with others.

Right, I suppose I meant that teaching requires more patience and the interest to share what you know, those are different from just practicing what you know. You’ve been running the school for a few years now, what are the challenges you face?  

Since we only have classes once a week, we have to accommodate students of different levels in the span of 4 hours. The challenge is to place them, make sure they are reaching their full potential, and keep them motivated.  Sometimes it is hard to organize practices and have everyone committed. Another challenge is keeping up with finances, inventory.  Every year we try to make things better organized sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  All of our teachers are volunteers and I am thankful for all they do.

 Yep, very few understand the demands of a completely volunteer-run organization like Kalamandapam. It’s run primarily to spread the joy of learning and that of dance, something that is hard to maintain in the society and the pressures we face. Are you happy where you are with dance?

Yes, I am happy with where I am learning as an adult. I missed out on learning as a kid so I felt that I needed to work extra hard to get here and I will continue working hard.

 Have any goals (in dance?) or do you feel like you’ve achieved it?

My goal was to learn to Kuchipudi dance. I reached that to a certain level but I am still learning. My next goal is to keep this tradition going and spread the tradition as long as I live.

You’ve performed at so many venues, from local temples to various events including the Kennedy Center. Where do you see yourself in 5 years as a dancer, as a teacher?

Lord Nataraja’s and guru’s blessings got me here and I will work towards spreading the tradition continue teaching, performing and pass my torch onto the next generation.

2013_Utsav 303

Kavitha’s two daughters are also accomplished dancers and watching them together is endearing and shows how nicely art can be a bonding that can bring a family close

Daughters and Kavitha

So there you have it.

Have a childhood passion that you have resigned to live vicariously through your child? Maybe it’s time you re-think it, and if you wanted it badly enough, then well, you have inspiration in front of you. Do it. You have but one life, live it well, and realize that dreams don’t have to stay dreams if you have the zeal, and determination to see them through. Yes, if you work hard enough, you can have your cake and eat it too! 🙂


Like this feature, check the other lovely ladies I feature on here. Know of someone who deserves the recognition and who inspires you or others in the community, feel free to contact me and we can get that going! We all could use some ignition every now and then 🙂

Batala Drummer: Aparna Krishnamoorthy

Radhika Kowtha-Rao
March 9, 2015
I met Aparna on Twitter. We started following each other when we realized we had a few things in common. Apart from DC area residents, we both enjoyed food. She is great at discovering various food places in and around DC (and everywhere she travels and she does travel a lot!) which makes me watch her with envy, coz well, that’s what a suburban can do! 🙂
She writes about it in her fresh new blog:Apart from food, what caught my eye was her fervent tweets and passionate shoutouts to a Batala drummer group. I had no idea what Batala was, but every link was to a place they played and so I asked her one day, and she explained that she is part of the troupe and they play at various places. I googled, like a good dutiful curious cat, and my eyes went round. I love all things music and arts, but seeing all these strong, vibrant women with HUGE drums and the way they swayed and played, was an experience itself!Then she tells me they are an all woman Band – Batala Washington and that she joined after moving here to the US!There was definitely a parallel connection. Not only were the arts the connection, she also followed her heart and passion and it shows! I can relate to that. Totally. :-)Of course I had to badger her to spend some time to sit down with me and tell me and us her story! How? What?Read on!
Aparna Krishnamoorthy:
Blog: Doorstep and Beyond 

So Aparna, let’s start from the beginning! A little background please?

I grew up in India, mostly in Bangalore, and have been in the US now for 13 years. During the day, I work in Product Management in the corporate world. My (outside of work) passion is in Food and Travel, and I LOVE exploring new restaurants and neighborhoods in DC (which I now call home). I recently started a blog – Doorstep and Beyond to document my adventures.

So, I can tell you love music. How did that come about? Started off as a child or is that a recent entry? 

Growing up in a Tamil Brahmin family, it’s hard to escape music. I grew up learning Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. I have ALWAYS been exposed to music and dance, but percussion has been my main draw.  When I was about 10 – I wanted to join “mridangam” classes, but it was a pretty male dominated thing to do, and multiple teachers refused to tutor a girl! So that was that. I ended up joining my high school marching band to get my percussion fix! 🙂 

Haha, I can totally relate to that! I am not Tamilian by birth, but have lived there and I know that it’s something that runs in your blood, and it’s actually a hugely envious trait, for the rest of the clans I mean! So this sounds like a natural progression of sorts. 
Percussion is amazing, and am not surprised but more shocked that the teachers would actually refuse you! Gosh, You showed them didn’t ya! 
So tell me, did you figure out why percussion? 

Percussion is fascinating to me. It’s very mathematical (and I love numbers!) in a sense, and timing is everything.  Also, when playing the drums, you are expressing yourself, and you literally forget about everything else at the time. The energy is fabulous, and invigorates me. 

I agree. The drum resonates deeply. 
I know we can all google, but tell us about Batala. What sort of drumming is it, and origins? 

The music that we play is from Salvdaor, in Brazil. In Salvdaor, music is literally everywhere. There are multiple street parades (called blocos) – and the music is basically the evolution of the drumming methods brought to Brazil in the 18th and 19th century by West African slaves. There’s a lot of history to the music we play.The all-women Batala Washington percussion group started in June 2007 in Washington DC, and is part of the International Batala group that plays Afro-Brazilian / Samba-Reggae rhythms.
There are over 20 Batala bands around the world – in the US, France, England, Spain, Brazil, Belgium…etc. It’s a big family!

That sounds super fascinating. But you are right, when I think South America, the vision is that of free styling, happy folks engaged in music, singing or drums and one thing that stays is that they all look so happy! That’s such a positive thing for a group to project. Love it. 
So, how did you fall upon this band? 

In 2011 my husband and I bought a condo and moved to the Ust neighborhood in DC. As luck would have it, Batala played a show in my neighborhood within a week of my moving! The minute I saw them – I knew I had to join them! I literally found my groove with them after seeing them that day. Seeing 70 women playing drums is powerful!

U bet! Isn’t that wonderful? Things just come together, when one is ready for it huh? 🙂 
So you’ve been with the band a few years now, tell me how this has changed or shaped you? 

Drumming in general to me is powerful, even more so as a girl. You forget about everything else when you are drumming – so it’s a great stress reliever, and a mental stimulator. Playing for 3-4 hours is also good physical exercise – it’s draining, but you are so wired from the stimulation, it’s almost like a “high”!
Batala Washington is all female –which brings about a different kind of energy and support!
Also, we got to play a show that opened for The Rolling Stones – can’t beat that!

All female is excellent! I belong to an all female biking group, and the fun, strong atmosphere is such a thriving atmosphere to be in. Has its perks definitely 🙂 Also one day you must send a video of you girls to all those tutors who refused you! 😉 
Rolling Stones! Wow Indeed! 
It must be a lot of fun and hard work am sure? 

Playing with Batala is a LOT OF FUN, and if you are not having fun, it’s hard to keep up the commitment. At the same time, it’s also challenging. You are constantly trying to improve your skills, learn another drum, recognize the nuances in the music and the beats…it’s a constant learning and improvement process.
We also get to play at really cool and interesting venues, events – exposing me to a lot of things that I otherwise may not have come across. 

YES! I agree. Work Hard, Play Hard always works. As long as we are challenged, and there is constant growth, interest and commitment sticks. What fine perks you have! 🙂 
So tell me how many hours a week you meet, what’s your time commitment to this? 

It’s definitely a big time and energy commitment. We spend about 5 hours weekly (Saturday mornings) or rehearsing as a group, and of course we have shows that we are all involved in. We are also an all volunteer band, which means we are involved in teams in the band and all contribute time to organizing shows, or managing the costumes and instruments, or doing PR etc.Currently I co-lead the production team, which is basically responsible for responding to show requests, making sure shows are set up and logistics on day of show. We have a number of teams and everyone in the band is encouraged to join one – if possible.

There are social commitments as well – with almost 80 people in the group, there is always a birthday, or a happy hour, or something! It’s up to you to manage your time and energy though – if you really want to do it, you will find a way. I have it easy – but there are women in the band who are in school, who have kids in school, so it’s a lot harder for them, but everyone is just so passionate about it, and you make it work. You want it to work.

Thank you for re-iterating what I also believe and tell folks all the time. If you want something bad enough, you will make time for it! The enthusiasm levels is what makes a group successful, and this is great that you girls have it together. Wonderful! 
Do you think this drumming is for anyone to try? Is there a personality that would do better? Let’s say, should we be musical or trained for someone to try Batala?

Absolutely for everyone! I believe that it gives you a different persona when you are drumming, especially with a group of other women! Introverts, extroverts, musically inclined, not so inclined – there really is something for everyone, as long as you want it!

Yay! One of these days I’ll probably try it too. Am getting all enthused just watching a few of those videos you sent! So with all this time commitment and practice, I bet you had to give up a lot too? 🙂 

Haha, yes, no more late Friday nights! In all seriousness, my husband has been a great support – since it does take a huge chunk of time, time away from him. And time away from friends too. My friends are also always supportive and come cheer us on in many shows. I don’t think of it as a sacrifice – but more that I have really found something that is truly satisfying, and am glad to have all the support I do!

It’s awesome to have that support right? Pretty much all the women I’ve spoken with, have a spouse who is amazingly supportive in what they do. It works both ways, but without the men allowing us to be ourselves, reaching where we want to is hard. 
So, how diverse is this group? Have any one else from India or someone you can relate to? I know it doesn’t matter much, but for curiosity sakes? 

There is one other Indian in the group. But – never felt conscious or stood out – the group is EXTREMELY diverse and very welcoming. I like that it is also a different world of sorts, for me – and outside my regular circle of friends. 

Awesome! I agree. It’s refreshing too, isn’t it? 
Okay now share some funny incidents during this learning process. I bet there are a few, there have to be! 🙂 

Oh man, too many to count! To keep it kosher, I’ll give you a small example. When we were rehearsing for our show at the Rolling Stones concert, Mick Jagger (we call him Mick ;)) came out and said Hi – and all of us just stood there like lovestruck teenagers, in awe, and didn’t say a word. Not sure what he made of that…..We’ve also had a number of shows where my (drum) sticks fly off…or I make a HUGE and very evident mistake…it’s embarrassing, but it happens…and we laugh it off.

LOL! Mick eh? Yep, the aura of a super musician. I can see that happening with a few I admire. 🙂 
..and yes, sticks flying. That’s me definitely haha! 
As a parting shot, tell me where you see yourself, say a year or 5 years form now? Batala is here to stay? 

Honestly, I don’t really know. I am not a planner. I do however know that I want to and will keep doing it as long as I can. Once a Batalette, always a Batelette J

A few links:
WashPo article on Batala Washington. 
CCTV’s article on the Troupe and Founder. 

There you have it folks. If you have been reading the posts here, the one constant thread that you will find is ” Follow your heart and your passion” Just do. Don’t overthink. Happiness and Contentment is found in the journey when you follow what your heart tells you. 
If you are new, take a moment and read some of the earlier women I’ve profiled on here. Subscribe for a fortnightly “So, what’s your story” on meeting the next Ms.Chutzpah 😉 


Jackie Tury: Awakening The Arts

Radhika Kowtha-Rao
February 9, 2015
Today I introduce you to Jackie Tury, artist and social worker who found her calling in the creative arts while laying down in bed nursing a leg injury 8 years ago. From then to now, Jackie has gone on and not only learnt to paint and explore within the various mediums but she has also integrated her work in the social field and with a perfect marriage of the two, she has evolved into an artful awakening artist and teacher!I met Jackie at a yoga retreat last year, and during the 2 hour session with her, I reflected, thought and chose my colors and cut and painted and glued and created a piece of work that was uniquely me and a reflection of my mind and its various layers. I did this with her asking questions, and leading me (and others) through the process.
Most definitely a very different kind of art class, I thought in my head as I held on it driving back.
Arguably, and not surprisingly, am not the only one who thought so!
..and with good reason, Jackie enjoys this process and you can tell how much by just visiting her home, which I did, and here is why I think she is wonderfully inspiring, different and has something that each of you will take away at the end of this post!

Jackie Tury:  Artful Awakenings: Check her blog out!

So Jackie, tell me about painting. That’s a lot of paintings I see around the house. Is this a hobby since childhood, did you go through lessons? How did painting come about?

Jackie chuckles: Nope, it’s something I picked up when I was having this “mid-life crisis”. I had a leg injury just as I turned 40 and I had to stay in bed. I took that time to look within me and see what made me happy and what I could do with the time I had. Painting cropped up, coz well, it helps having a husband who is also into arts! You can see it everywhere here!” 

I see that! The paintings and art pieces jump at me, like literally, 3-D pieces too? His work?
Yes! He does, and remarkably so. He is a strong support. These are his pieces. 

She points to a huge pianist-on-the-wall piece. Incredible wall art that one can most definitely not ignore as you walk into the room!

So tell me more about your “reflective” period as you recovered from that leg injury?

Ok, so I used that time to sit back, and really evaluate myself in a positive way. To think back, reflect and weigh in on what made me happy, and it really helped that I was forced to just sit down, and so my mind wasn’t occupied with the daily work, but more on myself. It was an “awakening”. I looked at that period as one where I went through personal growth. It was like clearing the fog and knowing where I wanted to go to make me happy and content. 

I think I know the feeling. It probably could also be due to the age the stage we are in our lives? Somehow when we allow it, things just seem to fall into place? When there’s a quiet within us, clarity floats in.
So you went to some classes and learnt the basics of painting?
Yes I did. It helped to go through a formal class, and it refined how I looked at paints. I was very happy and very gleefully kept painting and soon the house was flooded with my canvases and I was getting teased by the family. It was fun! I just kept painting, and then since the place was getting overwhelming, I started and with great difficulty accepted the idea that I could actually sell and did. A few pieces. 
It was hard. She added with a pause. That’s my biggest obstacle, how to sell or put a price on something as creative and hands-on as a painting. 
It is, and am beginning to believe that you are not the only woman who feels that way. Many say that. It’s an intrinsic block I suppose, one that we all need to make an effort to cross, and we will!
How would you describe your paintings? I see them and they don’t just look like paintings, they seem more tangible than just paint dried on a canvas. Am I even asking that right?
She laughs. I think my paintings are whimsical. That’s my style, most likely. I like to bring in things that mean something to me and add that in. A piece of cloth, paper, writing, jewel, sand, I work that into the painting, and make it an art work, it isn’t a painting anymore. 
How interesting! I noticed that, definitely piques interest and makes it very personal?
I’d like to think so. For folks who have worked with me and when I walk them through their art piece, they each create a unique piece that speaks to them in a way that is both therapeutic and cathartic. That’s how I originally started this program called Mother Nurture. 
Mother Nurture? Like an art class?
Yes, and No. As in, it is a program that I developed with my Social work background. It was after I discovered how much healing I got from painting, and I felt the need and also realized that there were others who could and would benefit from this, and so I decided to spread that joy. That’s how Mother Nurture was founded. I was already working with a few professionals and therapists because of my work in that area, so I added in this element of using the paint medium to make for healing and growth. It worked great, truly was an awakening. So, each week it was about a different emotion/feeling/discovery we worked on. Positive and uplifting was the goal. To rediscover parts of you through arts. 
Wow! That must have been so gratifying!
Yes it was and I loved that there are enough folks who actually benefit from it. That’s when I got more confident and realized that I, perhaps had something of use to give to people out there, and that there was a need for such therapy and finding oneself through painting and art! 
We had moved homes then and I went back to work, so things were a bit on the back burner and I took my time, and started again after a few months, and basically exploded! I realized I had the space (at home) and I had the talent, and I knew a few girlfriends were interested, so I told myself, “It’s now or never, so let me go run classes and just have fun!
Walking through Jackie’s very cozy brightly lit walk out basement art room, I cannot help smile at the whimsy and the creative air I am wrapped in. Tidy and organized, the stringed lights, the mirrors on the walls, the old comfy couch all together bring comfort and a quiet. Precisely the environment someone would want to go take a trip deep into themselves, an atmosphere that nurtures.
Which is what Jackie encourages.
The whole thing came to a full circle when Jackie put the Mother Nurture program and the arts together and it was a fresh new perspective that people loved! They were creating something so unique and personal and no two paintings from the same class looked alike
Fantastic, isn’t it great when you can visualize the birth of an idea? I can positively see you glow when you talk about your baby! Tell me how the growth was and are you happy with where you are?
Jackie laughs: It brings me such joy to talk about painting! Painting is of course different from selling your paints which is also different from teaching painting, as I discovered. Each requires a different way of thinking and chartering and that is hard and takes effort. But I suppose when you love what you do, things have a way of falling into place. I started teaching slowly, and I love my monthly classes at home, and there is a good turnout and am happy with that. One day I eventually hope to bring out a book putting all the learning together.

What was your biggest hurdle or challenge you face on a daily basis, that intrudes into your painting and what you want to do? Made any sacrifices or things that you feel guilty or bad about?

Well, my husband is a huge support to me and I am thankful for him. Has helped that he is also into arts and he understands that this makes me happy and so he takes care of our girls when I have to be elsewhere. For instance, when I had my first art show, my husband could not be there, an that was hard, but that’s the way it had to be. So was the time when my daughter had a fall and her nose hurt and I was not in town but at a retreat doing my art class. So yes, it’s a constant juggle, but I think it helps prioritizing and having a supportive partner who can stand in for you. 

How do you stay motivated? It is easy to get bogged down by routine.

As far as arts is concerned, I don’t need extremal motivation. I get my ideas from surrounding myself with nature, seeing new things, taking pictures etc. I am addicted to painting, and I get antsy if I don’t, so that’s good. But, as a businesswoman, that part requires work. Jackie chuckles. I have to work on that part, as that doesn’t come naturally. Trying to streamline most of it, so I don’t have to consciously do it all! 
Since money is such an icky subject, it has helped that I set up an online payment, so I don’t have very many cancellations, and also that money and payments are taken care of without addressing it consciously. Many women are juggling roles, that it is hard for them to take 3 hours for themselves! 

What are the three things that describe your work?

1. Therapeutic. 
2. Artist growth 
3. The process is larger than the product. 

These are power wish paintings that my clients create in the three hours they spend with me. 


If there is one thing that you take away from Jackie, it is that we find ourselves at the most unexpected time and mostly when we are not looking. It is never late to start and if there is even a hint of a fire burning within you, you owe it to yourself to run with it. 

Liked this post? Hit next and read about the other ladies Ive spoken with. There’s something to glean from every one of them. I promise. 🙂

Rhythmaya And Nirathi: Bollywood Dance

Radhika Kowtha-Rao
January 15, 2015
Continuing on with the Wednesday feature – interviews and showcasing influential women of our area, today’s spotlight shines on Nirathi the Director of Rhythmaya Ive known Nirathi since she moved into the area, fresh out of college and went to the same Indian dance school to learn Kuchipudi. She is one of those who leaves an impression on you when you meet her. Vivacious and always smiling, Ive never seen her tired or down, and is always up for a challenge, outing and some talk. When I think back, I doubt Ive ever seen her angry, upset, with anyone or anything and always seems to be in control or at least in ever adapting mode to the changing world and situations we are thrown in. Patience and bigger picture acceptance and recognition form the pillars of how she runs her life and company, and I have always admired her through the last 13 years Ive known her.She is inspirational, from the way she charts her course and how she manages and juggles home, work and how determined she is to make it through her goals to get to where she wants to be. To turn a passion into something tangible takes more than just talent and a dream, and Nirathi definitely has it figured out, for the most part, at that young age!

The interview below is long, but I assure you is worth every bit, so do read on!

Nirathi Rao: Director of Rhythmaya

Contact: Rhythmaya (Website)


Alright Nirathi, let’s start off from the beginning! Tell us where you are originally from: 

My parents hail from Andhra Pradesh, India and settled in Alabama in 1968. They lived with so many challenges: Racism, low income, learned the ways of a new country with a newborn and no available ‘daal’ to cook (their biggest adjustment!). But they look back on those days as an adventure, not sadness. That is what makes them amazing people: positive and selfless individuals who helped so many people even in their difficult times. These were the values I was raised on.

I was born in a city called Huntsville. When my parents first moved there, it was about 20 Indian Families and my dad was the president of the Small Cultural Association they formed. By the time I graduated high school, it grew to 100s of families but everyone still knew each other’s name, and that is the true beauty of the south—genuine hospitality that came in all forms and from every nationality which habituated there. 

Okay, so tell us about your schooling and how you landed in Virginia from Alabama?  

I majored in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, something my dad ‘let’ me venture into as opposed to the regular pre-med and engineering paths most of my peers followed. It was my dream to be that CNN Anchorwoman.  I thoroughly enjoyed attaining this degree for four years-from being in Campus News TV to running behind a cameraman catching stories at my ABC Network internships. After college graduation, my parents moved Northern Virginia for their jobs and I joined them and looked to Capitol Hill for my first gig.

 I luckily landed a Press Job working for a Florida Senator and Presidential Candidate for two years. It was an intense time of life, learning so much about the real world and what actually goes into News and Politics was hard for me, I was not sure how long I could last in that environment but still so thankful for the experience.

Since I was single and chilling on the weekends and finally moved to an area where the Indian Arts was heavy, I explored dance schools and joined Kalamandapam led by reknowned artist, Smt. Mrinalani Sadananda, and instantly fell in love with the fluid movement and expression of Kuchipudi. After participating in several dance dramas with Kalamandpam, it was like I could stop searching for my soul-It was right there within the art.

During this span of two years, I started to teach Bollywood to teens and children on the side for community functions. Then I realized, I lived for the weekends not to sleep in and have Sunday-Funday with my other 20-something friends, but because I felt most alive by teaching the art to young people. I knew it was the path meant for me at the time, regardless of the salary cut I was about to take.

Have you always danced as a kid? How did it start? Do you remember? 

Kamal Haasan’s Sagara Sangamam released in the early 80s and I was a mere 3 year old dancing on the coffee table trying to copy his every move. My mom frantically searched for aunties in our community to help us “copy the movie” but not too many people were available. Eventually my sister Pallavi, 5 years my senior and a pretty moody teen, somehow agreed to teach me my first dance and I am ever so appreciative.

So what Ive noticed is that you are very current with movies and even remember really old ones (from way back when I was a kid!). How much do you think Tollywood or movies has had an influence on your dance and passion?

 Tollywood is no Bollywood, it is just now gaining that glamorous effect as it entered the 21st century. Before, it was considered “nerdy” by the American Born Desi, but I have always loved actors like NTR and ANR and particularly their dance moves But in the 80s, they would do some wacky things, costume and steps wise! I think it was those people that took my choreography creativity to another level, you can move your body anyway you want, and if you have swag, you can pull it off. That’s what those “nerdy” men taught me.

Then I was ecstatic as the heroes got better and better looking: Nagarjun and Chiranjeevi ruled my teens and then of course Mahesh Babu having no mustache really put a spin on telugu movies! 🙂

 So the answer is yes, the changing times of Tollywood has a had a great influence on me. Whether it is a traditional K. Viswanathan song or a meaningless modern item song, I have always opened my mind up to look at what was on the screen as “art” .


 Movies always have some impact on us and I agree! So now coming to the studio, dance school – forming Rhythmaya – tell us the story. How and where did the seed happen?

So my co-worker Mihira Patel and I were sitting at our desks one day at work in 2005 and she saw me busily typing an email to all my students about the upcoming Ugadi function. And she said to me “wouldn’t it be cool if we could just open a dance school?” and together, we embarked on a new journey.


 Just like that huh? Sweet! Best things in life usually just spark into us. So the name’s interesting. Is there a story behind that? 

 I have always loved the word “Rhythm”, I believe a Tamil movie was named Rhythm and when I heard that, I thought, what a pretty name, maybe I can name my daughter “Rhythm” Of course, Jay would not have that. So when Mihira suggested something with “Maya” since it’s a word westerners could relate to, I decided to put my “Rhythm fix” to the school’s name and combined the two words as “Rhythmaya”. So, co-founder Mihira Patel and I came up with that together.

How many years now?

We began in 2005, so 8 years

Really? 8? Wow, time does fly! So every business or organization has milestones. Personal and industry, what do you think yours and Rhythmaya’s are? 

2005, we held our first classes in people’s basement. Ashburn and Falls Church were our branches.

2006, we got our first gig as a troupe at Cherry Blossom Festival and were ecstatic

2007, we landed a front page picture in the Arts section of the Washington Post performing a fusion dance at Howard University’s Homecoming

2007, the Washington DC Convention center hosts the Telugu Association of North America and 100 dancers shine on stage with a colorful decades piece of Tollywood

2008, through NetSAP DC, we performed our first semi-classical piece, “Natya’s Evolution” at the Kennedy Center

2009, the Troupe produces its first message piece “Bhoomi’s Tribe” about saving the environment and with a first place win at the Legg Mason Asian Festival, we decide our mission is “art for a cause” meaning, whatever troupe does from now on will have a message and aim to perform for nonprofits and charitable causes

2010, we hold our first of many Annual Charity events, it snowed on that day but we managed to pull in 200 people in the audience to benefit Hope for Humanity of DC and since then, we have been a sold out showcase every April trying to manage crowds of 500 plus. We have also been involved with many Indian and local DC charities since our mission had become clear in 2009.

2011, the Ashburn Branch hits 150 students

2012, Madame Toussads wax museum of DC asks us to be the show opener for the unveiling of their Bollywood Stars, a very high profile Media Event since it was the first time South Asian Actors were recognized in the museum

2013, Rhythmaya Franchises out to Rockville and opens up a Kathak branch, finally ventures into classical dance after years of thinking about it!

2013, the Troupe performs “Raksha” message piece about Lord Shiva saving the world with the arts for Congress at a Capitol Hill Event


Fabulous!! So all these milestones are obviously with a ton of planning, creating and hard work! How do you manage all of this juggling? 

Well my hours are flexible because I run my own business but I do follow the schedule very strictly once I have created it.

 For example, 8 AM to 3 PM on weekdays is completely dedicated to administrative duties for the school (making music, communicating with parents, arranging for performances) and also for Household chores and errands, cooking and working out (the last thing is SO hard to do but Hot Yoga makes everything more exciting)

 Then 3 PM to 6 PM is completely dedicated to my kids after school pick up, this includes their homework time, mommy playtime and after school activities


 6 to 9 PM on the weeknights (Monday to Thursday) is dedicated to class time

 Friday nights is family night or night out with my friends, the latter only happens once in awhile , I’m pretty sure facebook makes it look like I go out a lot more than that haha but you know it has a way of glorifying our experiences as you say Rads! 🙂 

Kalavapudi Family Portrait

 Saturdays we will do one social activity and then try our best to have one meal at home with just the four of us. This becomes really challenging, its really really hard for a person like me to decline fun invites, but its about prioritizing. Also, Sat night is performance night in high seasons like Diwali etc, but I do what I can. I’ll go to the performance, get the students through it then race home to be with the family. 

Wow! Okay, so the secret is to create a schedule and stick to it, like your life depended on it! Is that how you manage an active social life as well? (Yes, blame Facebook ;-))

I organize weekly schedule for me and the two girls and strictly follow it, put it in the google calendar and share with whoever is involved that week: be it Jay, my parents, my in laws, sisters, my baby-sitters or my neighbors.

 I think taking breaks is really important too. Even if I lose some sleep, I put the kids to bed and watch some junk tv to wind down for the night (hindi serials and Drama TV can really help a girl out!)

 Other ways to take break include: inviting a girlfriend over after the kids are in bed on a weeknight and just catch up with them. Adult interaction is so key for sanity and virtual communication like Gchat and Facebook don’t count. Most important thing is getting it into the calendar and make it happen.  

And most importantly, always believe you deserve the break, don’t feel guilty for taking some time away from your family and work.  Especially when this includes cleaning up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Remember, you will be better at your job and your family duties if you are refreshed and have the extra sugar calories in your system once in a blue moon.

 Awesome! So essentially, you are saying there is a well entwined support system around you, and with your scheduling, it all meshes in together? Yes? 

Oh yes, I get a lot of support from my parents, in laws, my sisters, my aunt and my neighbors are all really good people. The kids are older now where I can put them in a car and take them to performances and classes but there are enough people who take pleasure in being with them rather than me dragging them out of their set day.

 My husband Jay is really supportive of my endeavors. He runs his own business too and I think one of the reason he supports me the most is not just because he sees that following my passion makes me a happier and more fun wife :-),

It’s also because he is very ambitious himself and he has a strong belief in constantly renewing goals for success and never ever for a moment, have I seen him get lazy. It is really inspiring. He will come home at 8 or 9 PM, pretty late, they ONLY want dad and that’s what makes him amazing! But what works between us is the scheduling: bottom line is, I don’t have a day job and he doesn’t have a night and weekend job. So he does night and Sunday duty and has trained the girls to watch NFL with him. This leaves the golden question: when do Jay and Nirathi get to spend time together? Haha.


 My parents and in-laws are fantastic individuals. Never once have they asked me what the heck I was doing and why didn’t I return to my job on the hill. Okay that’s a lie, I think my mom asked a few years ago when she was volunteering for the Obama campaign, when I was returning to the hill, and I said well its kind of not the right time with the girls growing up. When Natya was born, my mom was around a lot when I returned to teach after my maternity leave. She is a really a bubbly individual with an infectious personality, people just want to hang around her always and she picks out  all our costumes, her fashion sense is beyond her time and she always can see the future with what looks best 🙂

 Taking on a new partner, Sheila Oak, has alleviated a lot of my stress. She has a day job as a financial consultant but manages to really work hard with me on the weekends. She never says “I don’t have the time”, she always finds a way to make the time and I think everyone should have that attitude. It is great to have someone to confide in about our line of work, it is certainly not easy to pass up weekend social activity as the rest of our peers are at brunch, lunch whatever it may be. I’m just glad I know someone as crazy as me now to relate to!

Am smiling knowing how encouraging and blessed you must be with the kind of people that are your pillars! So, just with anything else, ether are challenges and decisions one must take as you go along doing your thing. What are your challenges running your own show and tell us how do you handle them?

So there are a few: 

1. Bollywood is no longer a PG rated genre and receives so much criticism from our traditional society. The lyrics and choreography are sometimes extremely inappropriate and it is my job to create a filter and make good judgement calls on what to teach our students. Bollywood can get repetitive, the same hip shaking step can get old but again,  it is my job to keep it unique and I will try to find different angles and themes to keep the children and audiences engaged during our shows. While Bollywood has headed in a more ‘westernized’ direction, you can still dig deep and find beautiful stories and songs which keep traditions alive. At the end of the day, Bollywood is not going anywhere and big stars like Shahrukh and Kajol, have more influence on us than we think, so we should just embrace the good (and the butterflies they give us) and do the best we can with it.

2. You really have to pick and choose your venues carefully, like you work so hard, both you and the students and you want to go to places where the audience appreciates your efforts. But then, you have parents who want you to perform at certain places that might not be at the standards just mention. So in a business like Bollywood-Tollywood Dance, you have to find a draw a certain balance in making the client (parent) happy and the student appreciated.

3. Discipline and Responsibility. Well, you have to make deadlines for yourself instead of someone else doing that for you and that gets hard, cause you can put them off forever, so you always have to be ‘on’ and responsible. And you have constantly make your own plan and not follow instructions of anyone else. I mean that is a good thing definitely, but sometimes its nice to take orders….or not. 

4. I miss having co-workers to go eat lunch with. I am a one-man show and only see Sheila and the other troupe members once a week, not daily. Working from your home computer is not always the funnest!

That’s true, I agree. There is a whole social interaction that we miss when we work form home, and it takes a fair amount of self-discipline and perseverance to not fall off the path. You’ve been doing this for give or take 8 years! How do you feel when you look back? Is Rhythmaya where you want it to be? Have you stuck to your goal and path? 

Yes I am really happy about what Rhythmaya has become, a school where children not only dance and link to their culture but a place of mentorship and safety within a world we are trying to make more peaceful. I think the community we have created is the safest thing a child can lean on when in trouble. We still have such a long way to go in improving our strategies and growth with our new branches and franchises. But I am today, a happy person, a good wife and mom (I think) and I manage to keep up relationships with the wonderful wonderful people who surround me.


Are you one of those constantly dreaming up and working towards new challenges in a road map or do you adapt, take and tweak what comes to you?

Yes, I think a life with challenges can get exhausting and possible give me a coronary at the age of 40 but a life without it would be very boring for both me and Jay with our normal lives as well as our businesses. As for Rhythmaya, Sheila Oak and the other Senior members Shriya Kothur and Madhuri Giri constantly keep me on my feet with their unique themes and ideas.

Are you a planner to the tee? I know you schedule and prioritize, but you know am talking about taking it to the next level of OCD 🙂 

Actually no. I think I am nothing like a Type A personality and more like Type Creative (ie scatter brained)

I have tried my best to improve with that. Finally started shifting my life into outlook calendars and such but the best Ideas come to me while scribbling on an ugly scratch sheet of paper! Jay and Type A’s like my sister Pallavi constantly criticize my lack of planning skills, but I think my energy levels to commit to the actual work makes it a win-win situation at the end.

Of course, it’s all a balance! Professionally, where do you see yourself going? What’s next for Rhythmaya? Say in a year’s time, in 5 years time?

I would love to continue to do what we do with our students by motivating them to grow up to become confident and strong individuals. I want my students to be proud of spreading their culture and maintain their unique identity as Indian-Americans. If I have the capacity to dream further, I think more gigs in downtown DC like Smithsonian type places, downtown NYC (directing one show or one dance piece on Broadway would definitely complete my heart’s desires) , grow our dance audience and student population to clientele outside of Indian-Americans is especially important to us, especially with the Bollywood frenzy around our society It’s the new Salsa!

What are your proudest moments as the director, as a teacher and as a performer? 

Reaching down for my parents blessings at the end of every Annual Charity Show. Everything that happens on and off that stage is because of their beautiful journey as immigrants in this giving country.

A child beaming after a performance makes me the most proud, they have one more dose of confidence to live their life with a free spirit and with no fear as challenges approach them. Any hand written thank you card from a student makes my heart melt. When we gather socially with the students for holiday events, the way the kids all bond outside of dance and form friendships makes me proud.   

A student’s father said to me “Just like I talk about Tendulkar, my daughter talks about you”, pretty intense comparison but I appreciated the compliment, very nice thing to say to someone….

Kalavapudi Family Portrait


Was that fun to read or what? Inspired? Did you go ‘wow, that IS a lot of work” and “how cool it must be do choreograph and teach dance all day?”

It was an absolute pleasure getting to know Nirathi and how she ticks and works to create and establish such a fabulous school and to make a difference in so many children’s lives!