In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.
These days it's entirely fair to call Nathalie Zarate a belly-dance superstar. She runs the popular Dreams Bellydance Academy in Pembroke Pines, has appeared in music videos of stars like Timbaland and R. Kelly, and organizes the Miami Bellydance Convention, which draws performers and instructors from all over the world.
But in the early '00s, Zarate was a struggling young recent immigrant trying to find her own American dream. She found work delivering food for a Colombian cafeteria downtown, and one night colleagues invited her to Taverna Opa, a Greek restaurant in Hollywood.
During dinner, a belly-dance performance began, and one of the dancers randomly pulled Zarate away from her plate and onto a table to join the performance.
Zarate blew everyone away.
"The owners were there and they saw me," she says. "They came up to me and said, 'Would you like to audition?'"
Zarate was born in Buenos Aires, the oldest daughter of a market owner and a house cleaner. She began dancing -- jazz, ballet, tango -- when she was just 3 years old, but by the time she was a teenager, she had become disillusioned. Ballet dancers, Zarate explains, are expected to be skinny and tall. "I'm the contrary," she says -- short and curvy.
At 14, Zarate took up belly dancing as a hobby and immediately felt liberated. "I was celebrated for my body," she says.
Zarate was just 16 when she decided to try a new life in South Florida. After the chance audition at Taverna Opa, Zarate was hired to perform at the restaurant one night a week. One night became two, then seven, and Zarate was able to quit her cafeteria job. She never looked back.
She learned English, earned a business degree, and gradually established herself as one of the nation's leading belly-dance performers and instructors. "It really comes from the heart," she says.
Zarate opened Dreams in 2006 and, after realizing there were all kinds of dance conventions but none for belly dance, started the first convention in 2008.
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Zarate, who is now 31, lives in Dania Beach and has performed and taught in places like Italy and Taiwan. She is proud to have served as a mentor to dozens of young girls.
But she's also a devout Christian and eager to dispel any idea of belly dance as misogynistic -- for her and her students, she says, it's all about inspiring a healthy body image and positive expression.
"Women are created to be feminine and beautiful," she says. "It's not a bad thing."