In March 2020, Miami City Ballet’s Nathalia Arja landed the promotion of her dreams. As the curtain closed on the company’s final performance of Firebird, artistic director Lourdes Lopez took Arja’s hand and told her she was now a principal dancer. “I was in shock,” she says. “It was such a loving moment.”
Then, seemingly just as quickly, COVID sent MCB—and the country—into lockdown, and Arja spent the next several months training from home, eager to return to the stage and make her principal debut, which she did nearly nine months later.
Arja was born in Rio de Janeiro to two ballet dancers. Her mother, Alice Arja, owned her own school, Escola de Dança Alice Arja, where Nathalia’s training began at 5 years old. She danced with her mother’s ballet company, Companhia de ballet do Rio de Janeiro, for one year, but by 15, her mom felt it was time for her to seek training outside of the country.
“Unfortunately, the arts are not very supported in Brazil,” Arja says. “So, we made an audition video and sent it to five schools around the world.” One week later, each of the schools replied saying they wanted her to join their program. Miami City Ballet School felt like the best fit for her, so she moved to Miami with hopes of one day joining the company. After some fine-tuning while in school, Arja became an apprentice in 2009, and was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2011, soloist in 2014 and principal soloist in 2016.
Though the pandemic delayed Arja’s debut as a principal, Miami City Ballet was able to perform The Nutcracker on an outdoor stage in December. “It was like we were birds being set free,” Arja says. Since then, the company has been back in action (with masks, of course), and in November 2021, they will make their official return to an indoor stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Here, Arja opens up about her biggest technique hurdle, the worst advice she ever got as a student and the biggest turning point in her training.
On her biggest technical hurdle:
“I remember when we would get to the jumping part of Balanchine class, I was amazed by the other dancers’ speed, how quiet they were, how they used their toes for landing and taking off, and the coordination of their legs and arms. For me that was so challenging, because in Vaganova we aren’t trained to dance fast in allégro—it’s more mellow. Being in class every day and consistently working in that fast movement helped me improve. I had to tell myself not to cheat, but to consistently do the steps the way they are supposed to be done so that my body could process it into muscle memory.”
What she’s currently working on in class:
“I have long arms, and I’m always working on fully using them. Arms are the most important part of dancing because they shape everything else. I constantly remind myself to bend them, and make them soft and beautiful. I hate when I see videos of myself where they look like two stiff things.”
The biggest turning point in her dance training:
“When I arrived at Miami City Ballet’s school in 2008, I started in Level 8, which included Russian class in the afternoon. A couple months later I was advanced to take the morning Balanchine class with Carter Alexander, as well. Between the two I really transformed as a dancer. Carter basically told me to forget everything I knew previously—from plié to allégro, everything was different. I’m so glad I had the Vaganova foundation and Balanchine decoration for my dance training.”
The worst advice she ever received as a student:
“To try to be better than someone else. I disagree completely. I am shaped the way I am. My legs go up until a certain point. I shouldn’t compare myself to the way someone else is shaped. Use what God gave you to be your best. My mom always said, ‘Be like a horse, only look forward. Don’t look from side to side.’”
Her advice for teachers:
“Each dancer is gifted with something special to offer. Be consistent and push your students in a healthy way. Challenge them, but always make sure they know you believe in them.”