Middle Eastern belly dancing taught at Studio Desmeen

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Jewett City - posted Mon., Apr. 1, 2013
Belly dance at Studio Desmeen, Jewett City, CT
Dancers practicing at Studio Desmeen include (l-r) teacher Gayle Renaud, Nora Bergeron, Melony Grant and Nora Claus. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Jewett City seems like an unlikely location for a belly dance studio run by one of the regional legends of the art form. But Studio Desmeen, which takes the professional name Gayle Renaud used in her four-decade professional career, has been introducing local women to belly dance for the past 10 years.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” said Renaud. “When I got into my late 20s I thought I was probably not going to be able to do this forever. But it was my career, and here I am at 63.”

The colorful costumes, jingling jewelry, clinking finger cymbals and swirling movements have drawn a loyal following among her students, some of whom have been with her for seven or eight years. “The little girl in me likes to dress up still and twirl,” said Lisa Ciufecu, a student from Franklin.

“A lot of us have busy lives, but I’ve been thinking about it all day long – I’m going to dance class,” said another student, who identified herself as Judys. “It’s my time away from the kids and from work. It’s a stress reliever.”

Renaud, who grew up in Worcester, Mass., said that in her childhood, the weekly gatherings of her extended Lebanese-American family invariably included music and dance. “The music was always playing and there was a complete array of cultural foods,” she said. People of all ages and genders joined, using the arm movements and hip rolls associated with belly dance, even “the babies in their high chairs, just turning their little hands. I thought everyone did this.”

Renaud said that she is constantly bucking the popular perception of belly dance as erotic, which dates from its introduction to America during the Columbian Exposition. “It was like a circus act,” she said. “The dancers had very little midriff showing, but they wore soft clothing compared to what the Victorian women were wearing in that era. It was taken out of context, and unfortunately striptease performers took over the idea of the long veils and swaying movement.”

As a teenager, she began taking on paying gigs. “When it came to public dancing, my parents were really apprehensive until I got established,” Renaud said. “Middle Eastern families don’t let their women go out and dance like that. But it was my dream to be a dancer, and my dream came true.”

Her career took her all over New England, even to performances on cruise ships to Bermuda and the Bahamas. She appeared on the album cover of “Artistic Moods for Dance,” an LP record of Middle Eastern music by the Fred Elias ensemble, with which she was a featured dancer. She has danced at restaurants all over New England and even on the Worcester Art Museum’s mosaic floor.

Renaud began teaching in adult education programs while still in her teens. Her classes are performance-oriented, and her troupe has been invited to perform at venues ranging from community festivals to senior centers to the Coast Guard Academy. “This is such a happy business,” she said. “Before we even do anything, people are enjoying just looking at us. You’re looked at with kind eyes – it’s almost not even about how good you are, though we do a nice show.”

Ciufecu said that Renaud’s classes focus on the cultural background of each dance. “It’s not just the workout – it’s encompassing everything, including the music. She’s a true perfectionist.”

Renaud offers classes for beginner and advanced students at Studio Desmeen in the Slater Mill Mall. For more information, call 860-334-4893.

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