Her hands dancing as she speaks, Renee Stewart describes the road trip that brought her and her family from Illinois to Benicia.
“We drove five days with a dog and a sick cat and a 2-year-old,” she says, laughing at the memory while her hands dip and glide expressively. “We just had a lot of fun.”
Fun is the operative word in Renee’s life. Whether working to support school band programs, serving on the board of the Children’s Music and Arts Foundation and the city Tourism Committee, or learning a new belly dancing routine, Renee is laughing and raising the energy level in whatever room she finds herself.
Renee, 47, happily admits she has done a number of quirky things in her life. She was a dancing assistant for a magician who choreographed his illusion-filled show. She completed Outward Bound training and took special education students camping in tents in January in Illinois. She appeared in television commercials on behalf of the California Teachers Association. She even marched in a kazoo band for a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Ill.
“That was one of the silliest things I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “I did it so I could tell my grandkids that I once marched in a kazoo band. It was intense choreography and we worked really hard to learn it all.”
Renee’s husband, Andre, serves on the Benicia school board. Together they have two sons, one in high school and one in middle school. She was a special education teacher in the Chicago area for 10 years before her oldest son was born. She started belly dancing shortly after arriving in Benicia in November 1999.
When did you begin belly dancing? Just a few weeks after we moved, we were at the holiday parade and there’s a float with belly dancers. I saw a woman balancing a sword on her head while riding on a flat-bed truck going down a main street in a small town, and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’
I called the name on the float, Loa Kirkbride, who offers classes through Parks and Rec. Then I joined Sirens In Sanity, where I met Chari Garrett. … Chari now operates Grateful Siren Belly Fusion, and I am in the dance troupe and dance company. I go two to three times a week, but that doesn’t include private lessons. I do those, too. It’s really fun.
What makes belly dancing fun for you? What I love about dancing with Chari is that I can fuse all the dance I’ve had—a little bit of ballet, some jazz, some modern dance—with belly dancing. We don’t want to fit into any one category. Everything can come in. We’re not just learning belly dancing, but classic ballet forms and other types of dance. I come out of there knowing I can call myself a dancer.
For a middle-aged woman, it’s satisfying to know you can go out and dance correctly.
Where does the group perform? We perform at festivals and events. We did Rakkasah West in Richmond in March. Thousands of people come from all over the world to perform at this. There are belly dancers on stage continuously from Friday through Sunday. …
We’ve danced at the Solano County Fair, Taste of Petaluma, and we just did the Tribal Fest. We’ve danced in every situation. I’ve danced in restaurants, I’ve danced on stage, I’ve danced in classrooms, I’ve danced at parties.
Do you have a favorite memory from belly dancing? There are so many. One of my favorites is when we get to work with the kids. … Recently we were working at Robert Semple in the special ed classroom. That was the best. It took me back to the days when I taught, when we used every trick in the book to reach kids.
I love performing, but when we work with kids, there’s a bigger thrill. We get to wow them with the bling. Even the boys love it because we bring in drums and finger cymbals. It’s fun to work here in Benicia, because, with our arts community, people here get the importance of the arts.
You still love it after 13 years of dancing? I haven’t done it continuously for 13 years. I ended up having to take a break from belly dancing for a year. In February 2012 I had a massive pulmonary embolism. I had a pain in my lower right chest; I thought I pulled a muscle. I was working at the Crab Feed at St Pat’s, and I was running back and forth and I was out of breath. The next day was the Super Bowl and my friends told me I didn’t look so good, and I told them I was fine, just a little tired. The next morning my husband said, “You were up all night, breathing funny—we’re going to the ER.” They ended up giving me an MRI and a cat scan and found multiple clots in my lung. …
Twenty-one vials of blood later, they found out I have a genetic blood disorder. I spent three days in the hospital and I’m on Coumadin now. I’ll be on Grandpa medicine for the rest of my life.
I just came back to the dance company a few months ago.
What did you learn from that health scare? It made it crystal clear to me that life can be fragile. Sometimes you just have to slow down.
Just before the embolism, things were getting kind of crazy. I have to remember things aren’t as serious as they seem, that I have to remember to sit my butt down sometimes. There’s a real silly side of me that sometimes I forget.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start belly dancing? Come on out! The great thing is you can start from wherever you are in life – we’ve had women come from all different places in life, with different injuries. Your body can do more than you think.
There are no judgments in belly dancing. We’re a sisterhood. We’re all different-sized women. You don’t have to be this tiny, little-bitty thing, you don’t have to be 18. You’re never too old to go—Cheri’s a grandma. And there are guys in belly dancing.
The movements are more natural than you think they are. It doesn’t matter what dance background you have or even if you have none at all. It’s just a fun way to dance, just a fun way to stay fit.
Plus you get to dress up. Every week I get to dress up and try different kinds of makeup. We can bejewel our hair, wear jewelry you wouldn’t normally wear to the grocery store. I’ve gone to the grocery store after belly dancing, but I try to put on a caftan over my clothes. But I still have the makeup and jewelry. The best is seeing a belly dancer at the gas station, pumping gas. That’s a vision.