The Mechanics of Motion: A Conversation with a Ballerina

Kaitlyn Kumar strikes a ballet pose in a dance studio
Photo/Carolyn DiLoreto

Have you ever wanted to understand the mechanics of motion? As part of USC Viterbi’s new “31 Questions” video series we spoke with sophomore Kaitlyn Kumar about fouettés, jetés and other ballet terms most people can’t say, much less do, and how they overlap with her dream job—helping people move through lightweight, adaptable prosthetics.

At USC Viterbi, Kumar studies mechanical engineering while also pursuing another passion: dance. Despite setbacks, like severe scoliosis and a shaky beginning with math, she has learned to advocate for herself, build resilience and recalibrate with ever-changing landscapes. Now she’s got her eyes set on changing the world by helping people, including herself, move better.

Here are some excerpts from our rapid-fire video interview with Kumar:

Where did you grow up?
San Jose – in the Bay Area.

What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a paleontologist for one year, and then I decided to become a ballet dancer. That’s the profession that’s stuck with me for most of my life.

Why did you stop pursuing ballet professionally?
I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis when I was 11, which made it physically impossible to pursue dance professionally without a lot of back pain. Also, scoliosis messes with your lines a bit in ballet, and it frustrated me that I couldn’t do everything like my peers.

What’s your first engineering memory?
In middle school I experimented a lot with wearable technology, so I sewed electroluminescent wire into a Transformers Bumblebee costume for Halloween. It bridged my interest between fashion and technology.

What do you love about mechanical engineering?
I love how you can take a bunch of different parts and create something with it that can help improve people’s lives.

Do you have an engineering playlist?
Anything from Billie Eilish or this Russian playlist I put together on recommendation from my Bosnian friend.

What advice would you give to girls who are curious about engineering?
Get involved. Try to see if you have a local Girls Who Code chapter or a coding club or a STEM club. Even if you are struggling in science or math, or don’t think engineering is for you, just give STEM a chance. It won’t be easy. I used to coach middle school robotics, and I saw how the girls kept on getting pushed out by the boys into things like marketing and design. These are cool options if you are interested in them, but the girls wanted to work on the robots.

I would also encourage women in engineering to go back and mentor and help the younger girls, because they need to see you as role models and they need you to stand up for them.

How do art and engineering overlap for you?
Creativity. They are both very detail-oriented. And they both teach you a lot about dedication.

What’s your favorite ballet?
“Don Quixote.” It’s full of joy.