By Eric Barton
The boy and the girl take a step towards each other. He reaches out his hand. She takes it. Her back arches toward him, their eyes lock. He pulls her close. And just before their bodies touch, she dances away.
Nathalia Arja and Renan Cerdeiro have been doing this kind of thing since they were kids. Before that, even. Because they’ve really never been apart.
Twenty-two years ago, their mothers were friends and pregnant at the same time. The moms joked about how their children would dance together one day. It served as a prediction.
Now, Nathalia and Renan are among the top dancers at the Miami City Ballet. Just how it was supposed to be.
It began because Nathalia’s mom, former dancer Alice Arja, owns one of Brazil’s top ballet schools. Renan would tag along and watch his older sister, who took classes. He was five when Alice asked if he wanted to try.
Nathalia was an obvious partner, considering their same age. So they started dancing together and soon were winning “best couple” at contests. They were also friends. They played together and daydreamed about one day dancing for a ballet company in some foreign country.
They were 15 when it happened. After spending two weeks at a Miami City Ballet summer program, the company invited Renan and Nathalia to stay and train. But Nathalia told her mom she wasn’t sure she was ready. “It’s time to leave the family,” Nathalia recalls Alice Arja telling her. “This is the sacrifice you make if you want to be a success.”
Renan and Nathalia moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Miami Beach. Their only furniture was a pair of air mattresses. They learned to cook by Googling things like “how to scramble eggs.” She didn’t know how to open a bank account, so she kept the $500 her mom sent her each month in a plastic baggie hidden in a stack of her underwear.
At the ballet, they struggled. Neither spoke English, and as the first Brazilian dancers, few at the Miami City Ballet spoke Portuguese. That first year, they were confused and unable to follow the instructions. “I cried a lot,” Nathalia recalls. “And I called my mom every night. She would just keep saying, ‘If you really love this, you will sacrifice.’”
They watched movies with subtitles to learn English. At the ballet, they’d listen in on conversations to pick up on new phrases. There’s barely an accent in either’s voice now.
And it wasn’t long until the company realized Nathalia and Renan had a connection. “It’s a comfort level in being childhood friends,” says Lourdes Lopez, the Miami City Ballet’s artistic director. “You have a sense that Renan is there to take care of her, and Nathalia happily lets him.”
It’s different when the two of them dance together. “They’re pals,” Lopez explains. “Maybe we wouldn’t put them together in romantic parts, because that’s just not their relationship.”
As Renan and Nathalia improved their English and their dancing abilities, they also helped develop a Brazilian connection at the ballet. Alice Arja now sends about 50 dancers a year to Miami for an intensive summer program. Six Brazilian dancers are now in the company of 50. “I personally like a ballet company that reflects the differences in the community,” Lopez says. “Brazil is traditionally known for rhythm dances, and now they are getting classical training. What you’re seeing are these kids coming out of Brazil with a high level of skill.”
Seven years after they arrived, Nathalia is a soloist and Renan is a principal dancer. They’re often cast together, and if you watch them, it’s obvious why. At a Thursday afternoon practice this fall, they gathered around a tiny television in one of the ballet’s studios with four other dancers. They watched a performance of Mercuric Tidings, a modern dance by choreographer Paul Taylor. As the video played, they began miming the movements with little motions of their arms and legs.
“This dance doesn’t have a story per se,” Nathalia had explained just before they began practicing the dance, which they’ll perform in January. “It’s just girl meets boy.”
Nathalia and Renan paired off on the left side of the room. They moved together largely without looking at one another, Renan’s hand gracing Nathalia’s arm, hers running the length of his shoulders as she crosses behind him on her toes.
Their harmony has always been this easy. They’re not a couple – they both date other people, other dancers from the company. But theirs is still a love story, between two people as close as brother and sister.
“He knows me,” Nathalia says. “He knows where to put me and where my legs will move next. If I’m going to fall, he knows when to save me.”
After all, they’re still those two little kids winning awards for best couple.
Miami City Ballet performances rotate among the Arsht, Kravis and Broward centers. Tickets cost $20 to $175 and can be purchased at miamicityballet.org.