“Dancing is such an effective art form,” Cecily Stewart explains excitedly. “It widens the mind. It brings me so much joy. I want to share that with students.”
Cecily is a dancer, choreographer, and the education and outreach director for the State Street Ballet. “Some people just want to only dance,” Cecily tells me about her dedication to dance education. “That was never me.”
Four years ago, she founded Library Dances, which has produced dance and theater performances throughout Santa Barbara, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Legend of Zorro, Romeo & Pirouette, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet(te), and The Scarlet Letter. The purpose of the program is to combine literature and dance to make it more accessible to students. “We help students understand dance and movement,” she says, “assigning and recognizing meaning in the movement.”
The first project was with San Marcos High School and has since involved Santa Barbara Junior High, La Colina, Laguna Blanca, and Goleta Valley Junior High. “It’s always a balance, making these performances happen with the regular season of Santa Barbara Ballet and the touring,” says Cecily, who is quick to acknowledge the support of executive director Rodney Gustafson. “I see it as a chapter of what State Street Ballet does and a great example of an organization within an organization.”
More recently, she started a week-long dance history pilot program with three junior high schools that puts on lectures and demonstrations for theater students. “I had the idea and, because I had the connection with the teachers, we thought it was worthwhile,” says Cecily, who also teaches at the Gustafson Dance and Los Olivos Dance Gallery. She confesses, “I don’t enjoy not having anything to do.”
In person, Cecily is warm and oh-so-polite yet full of curiosity and wonder. She was born in Santa Barbara, and started dancing while very young. “But when I was five, I just wanted to run around, and not be serious about it,” she admits. “When I was eight, I saw Beauty and the Beast and decided to take it seriously.” When she was 12, Cecily’s parents let her use the garage as a dance studio, and she taught ballet to her cousins and kids from the neighborhood.
“I always wanted to create,” says Cecily, who attended San Marcos High and trained with the Santa Barbara Ballet Center until she was 16 and moved to Marin County. “If you want to be a professional dancer, you need to move to Marin County,” she explains. In 2007, while training in dance, she graduated from high school and got a degree in performing arts from St. Mary’s College through the LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals) program.
When she was 19, Cecily moved to New York City and joined the New York Theatre Ballet. “I loved the city,” she recalls. “I worked really long hours. It was challenging.”
In 2009, she returned to Santa Barbara to join State Street Ballet. “It felt too good to be true,” she acknowledges. “I never thought I would move back until my career was over.”
“People write off dancing without seeing it,” Cecily states. “Educating the audience and validating their experience is very rewarding.”
Cecily Stewart answers the Proust questionnaire.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Getting to live out my childhood dream of being a ballerina and end up living in Santa Barbara, perform in other countries, and dance/choreograph with such amazing people.
What is your current state of mind?
Keep listening, keep fighting for what you believe in, and keep doing the things that bring you joy. Take pleasure in the little things and celebrate small victories.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think it looks something like the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I would love to live in a time where people are equal and everyone’s needs are met. I am a big softy when it comes to animals so I’d love to live in a time when humans and animals co-exist without causing each other suffering or needing to eat or kill each other. If we could combine all of that with a healthy earth and a populace that worked to keep it that way, I think that is my idea of perfect happiness. Plus champagne on tap.
What do you like most about your job?
I love how my job connects people with the language of movement. It is a universal form of communication, open to interpretation, and quite impermanent.
What is your greatest fear?
Losing the people (and animals!) I love.
Who do you most admire?
Nelson Mandela, for the positive impact he had on his country and the world, and for his example of forgiveness, and his ability to heal wounds and move forward.
What is your greatest extravagance?
What is the quality you most like in people?
The ability to empathize and imagine other perspectives. And I like when people are nice.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Not valuing the people around you and/or the natural world.
What do you most value in friends?
Honesty and a sense of humor.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My right eyebrow (when it’s raised).
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to be able to sing.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
These days I would like to be better at keeping my mouth shut sometimes. Enough said.
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara! Or Tuscany.
What is your most treasured possession?
Our cats, Panda and Bear.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Mary Queen of Scots because she is Scottish (like me), and a Stuart (almost like me), and we share the same birthday (December 8, different years though).
On what occasion do you lie?
To protect the feelings of people I care about, and to keep surprises secret!