Humans of Harker: Dancing through academia

Natasha Maniar gets the best of both worlds


Gloria Zhu

“I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of dance—that you can be vulnerable internally and share that with a large number of people. You’re never alone, plus you’re showing that to an audience full of maybe a thousand people, and I think that speaks to how both external and internal dance is,” Natasha Maniar (12) said.

Natasha Maniar (12) is no stranger to science. She is the co-founder of Harker’s artificial intelligence club, bringing neural nets and periodic speaker events to the community. Her research with AI and medicine has won accolades at the national level, the most recent being a coveted spot in Regeneron Science Talent Search’s finalist pool of forty high school researchers. When asked for a couple of adjectives to describe Natasha, Mike Pistacchi, her junior year biology teacher, responds instantly with “future awesome doctor.” However, her face, normally level and composed, lights up with a quiet happiness when she’s talking about a completely separate aspect of her life — dance, which Natasha has been involved in since she was just two years old.

“She came to school in either sixth or seventh grade and we met on the first day of school, and I thought that she’d been a dancer all her life… and it was obvious,” said friend Alycia Cary (12).

Because she doesn’t dance at school, many of Natasha’s classmates don’t know that, on top of competitions on the weekends, she spends over ten hours a week in the studio. For Natasha, dance is her own world, completely separate from school, where she can move, free from thoughts of homework and tests.

“It gives me two different environments,” she said. “Dance is a different environment where… everyone’s from different schools and stuff, so the relationships you build in [dance and school] are very different, and at the same time, it’s a place where you can release your emotions and have your own thoughts to yourself away from school.”

Dance has also brought to Natasha some of her most treasured friends and mentors, such as her dance teacher, who have helped shape her into the person she is today.

“[My favorite part about dance] is definitely the people I meet there,” she said. “I’ve developed a group of friends who have stayed with me since I was born, basically, and the fact that all of us come from different schools and we’re still able to relate to each other through dance is something that I really like a lot.”

Despite having to juggle both academics and dance, Natasha still manages to keep things in perspective and maintain a solid sense of purpose in what she does every day.

“In high school, it’s very easy to just think about what is going to happen the next day,  in the short term… but I try to keep a long-term mindset and I think that’s visible, for example, in my research: I have to think about how I’m going to impact a wide variety of people in the end, no matter how long it’s going to take me to get to the result that I want,” she said.

The fine line Natasha walks between art and science has taught her the importance of not boxing herself into just one activity and instead wholeheartedly embracing her varied interests. When she was younger, she would often try to bundle herself into the stereotype of a dancer, only doing certain things, or the stereotype of a STEM-oriented student, only participating in certain activities.

“I think, now that I’ve been opened up to so many new opportunities in the past couple years, that I have to be open to new things that come my way and not just say, ‘No, I can’t do this,’” she said.

Gabriele Stahl, who was Natasha’s math teacher in junior year, and with whom Natasha still maintains weekly contact, comments on her thoughtfulness in all aspects of her life.

“[Natasha] has depth… she is a person with depth, she is not superficial. You know, people who are loud and maybe have not much to say, they stand out, but Natasha is very different. You have to find her,” Stahl said.

This depth and complexity arises from Natasha’s immersal in fields of science and art, which provide her two vastly different ways of looking at life. While her research is governed by facts and hard logic, Natasha’s emotions are free to manifest themselves in her movement in dance.

“It’s just a free space to demonstrate what I’m thinking through actions, which is very different from how I would necessarily do that in school or in the real world, and it’s very personal, but at the same time I’m doing it for a big audience,” she said.

A few years ago, Natasha was on a team with seniors who were graduating that year, and they were about to begin the last dance of that season. She recalls their team huddle before the dance, fittingly entitled “Countdown.” Even though they don’t usually cry onstage, that was the first time the entire team started crying even while performing.

“I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of dance,” she said, “that you can be vulnerable internally and share that with a large number of people. You’re never alone, plus you’re showing that to an audience full of maybe a thousand people, and I think that speaks to how both external and internal dance is.”