Part 1: Childhood
by Barbara Sellers-Young PhD
posted January ?, 2010
Serena Wilson, a member of the first generation of New York’s belly dance teachers, died on June 17, 2007. Current and former students immediately eulogized her on youtube.com with images of her dancing in a Greek temple and on the Egyptian pyramids. [ed- see below] This essay looks at her life in relationship to the evolution of oriental dancing in the early part of the century from the stages of Vaudeville and the Salome Craze to the impact of the dance metaphysics of Ruth St. Denis. As such, it provides a glimpse into how one of the pioneers of bellydance in the United States combined the various influences in her life to evolve her version of the feminine through the vocabulary of bellydance.
I am a woman, wrapped in chiffon and jewels,
Thin silks and girdle of gold.
I stretch my arms…
The embrace encompasses a universe.
I can control a quiver in my hips,
Tell a thousand stories with my eyes,
Skip with child-like glee,
The smile of experience on my lips.
Glide in innocence, endure with age.
Spin like a dervish; undulate in sensuality…
Excite, promise, create, change, tease, mock,
Unveil my passion.
Untiringly seduce the world as I move my body,
For I am a woman…
I am the dancer.(1)
Serene Blake was born in the Bronx on Aug. 8, 1933 into a Vaudeville family of performers called Blake & Blake. Her mother sang and her father played the banjo.(2) Her childhood and adolescent years intersected with the Vaudeville stage, on which she often appeared with her parents in the 1930s. This was, however, an era when the Vaudeville stage was in decline as the population flocked first to the silent films and then the talkies. In the end, Serena’s parents quit the Vaudeville and settled in New York where they organized soirees in their Upper West Side apartment that integrated a Vaudeville format of dance, singing, and comic routines. During World War II, Serena joined her parents in entertaining the troops at various military posts and in veteran’s hospitals following the war. Between performing, Serena’s Budapest-born mother provided her an artistic education, most importantly dance lessons at age seven with Ruth St. Denis.
Ruth St. Denis
Serena’s artistic mentor Ruth St. Denis is considered one of the founders of contemporary modern dance. Raised in the contemplative surroundings of a New York farm and trained in the basics of the movement vocabulary of Delsarte, Ruth St. Denis moved with her family to Brooklyn in 1893. In her early career, she performed as a skirt dancer in the fast paced environment of Vaudeville in which performers commanded the stage through the tempo of their performance. Inspired by the pageant ballets that created an imaginary Orient such as Egypt through the Centuries and Genevieve Stebbins’ dances based on Greek statuary, St. Denis was not satisfied with being a Vaudeville skirt dancer or a dancer and actress in David Belasco’s company, a fact that she acknowledged to herself while in Buffalo on tour. Sitting in a café, her eyes happened on an image of the Egyptian goddess Isis that was part of a cigarette ad. Convincing the clerk to give her the poster, she placed it on the wall next to her bed. Contemplating it, she saw: a modernized and most un-Egyptian figure of the goddess Isis. She was sitting on a throne, framed by a sort of pylon. At her feet were the waters of the Nile with lotus growing. Her knees were close together; her right hand was on her right thigh, while with the other hand she held a lotus-tipped staff. The coloring was harmonious and the composition pleasing but undistinguished.
Despite the contrived nature of the ad, it set off an epiphany that embraced past contemplations on spirituality and art: It was like the white light which contains all the colors, like the apparent stillness which contains all motion. It was, however, not merely a symbol of Egypt, but a universal symbol of all the elements of history and art which may be expressed through the human body.
Her destiny, as she was to phrase it, “had sprung alive” in the moment of contemplating the image and she acknowledged an internal state of rapture and a commitment to become “a rhythmic and impersonal instrument of spiritual revelation rather than a personal actress of comedy or tragedy” .
Her realization was to take her on a search through New York’s libraries and museums in search of the sources that could aid in the revelation of her new found understanding. In the process, her choreographic interests moved from Egypt to India and she consequently searched the environments of New York’s Indian community for support of her project based on the goddess Radha, consort of the god Krishna.
My intense interest in India had sent me into the byways of New York and I collected a little company, which used to meet in our flat to rehearse two or three times a week. They were of all varieties –Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists. Some were clerks from shops, some were students at Columbia, and one or two were unmistakable ne’er do-wells. They would sit on the floor and answer in a chorus the questions that I flung at them.
St. Denis performances were situated at the conjunction of information gained from books, art, and the explanations of spirituality provided by the Indian immigrant community. Her first performances based on India were staged in the private homes of New York elites for guests such as the Gaekwar of Baroda. Supported by a group of society women charmed by her version of the Hindu goddess Radha, St. Denis received a positive review in the New York press which ultimately provided her the necessary financial backing to tour throughout the American Vaudeville circuit. Although St. Denis would return to New York throughout her life, her career and the development of the company Denishawn with husband Ted Shawn would integrate ongoing tours of the United States with a school in Los Angeles and involvement in the Hollywood film industry.
The company’s repertoire combined images from across the Orient–from North Africa to Japan–notably the evening length piece Egypta.
St. Denis’ career evolved from her involvement with New York City’s unique dance aesthetic formed by the immigrant communities that shared information on Asian religion to the libraries and museums from which she derived the thoughts and images, and finally to the stages that provided opportunities to perform. She offered her rendition of these images through portraits of female spirituality such as Egypta (Isis) Rahda, Ishta and others. For St. Denis, performing images of the divine was an opportunity to embody the essence of certain iconic symbols that reflected to her the human struggle to comprehend the body in time and space: The symbol of Egypta was the balanced faculties of the bisexual or complete being, expressed in the negative and positive of day and night, in the manifold life and culture of man and woman, and in the complete cycle of life and death. Radha was the symbol of realization, that only by complete denial of the attachments of sense does one experience the golden lotus of il lumination. Ishtar was the desire principle of creation, that living power that manifested itself first in human love and passion, and then in the ramifications of those energies of love which are expressed in the combativeness of war, in the imagery of the arts, and in the illumination of religion.
The Orient for St. Denis was not a lived space of actual people, but an abstract space that had been revealed to her through her meditations on art and such texts as–The Bhagavadgita, Christ and the Indian Road by Stanley Jones, The Gate Beautiful by John Ward Stimpson, and Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism by Ananda Coomaraswami. Instead, St. Densis admits:
My final art is impersonal, for when I dance I am really an abstraction, a creature set apart from time and space, unrelated to human things in the ordinary sense. I feel a certain limitless state of being, a curious unending movement not only of my dance, but of my very being.
While her performances have been categorized by some dance scholars (Desmond 1991) as fitting within Orientalism’s framework, her concern was not overtly related to the construction of power articulated by Said. Her performances were instead a staged version of a personal and metaphysical quest of which the female gods of the Orient were symbolic representations.
Serena began lessons with Ruth St. Denis during a period of transition in St Denis’ life. Denishawn was dissolved and St. Denis had started the School of Natya with La
Meri (Russell M. Hughes). Ruth St. Denis’ contribution to the school’s curriculum was her interpretative style of Oriental dance, while La Meri taught the actual dances of India and Spain. Although Serena would have been exposed to the dual dance environment of the studio, there is no indication that she took lessons with La Meri. Her memories of the lessons with Ruth St. Denis, however, were still vivid in 2000. As she described it:
"Ruth St. Denis was seated on a couch that was draped with a silk fabric brilliantly patterned with flowers. She sat throughout the entire lesson, and only dealt with movement of the arms. After I had taken a few classes with her, Miss St. Denis presented my mother with a copy of her book, An Unfinished Life. In it she had inscribed, ‘To my youngest student at this time, Serene Blake, whose future I watch with great affection.’(3)"
The sixty-two year old St. Denis left a life-long standing impression on seven-year-old Serena. For the young girl, St. Denis was the embodiment of femininity in performance, an image of poise and sophistication with a movement vocabulary in which each simple gesture expressed emotional volumes. These were images Serena would later attempt to incorporate in her performing as well as convey the importance of them to her students.
Serena’s dance classes with Ruth St. Denis were part of an eclectic arts education that also featured classes with various proponents of the Russian school of ballet, and when she was a teenager, art classes with such notables as ink artist Dorothy Dent and sculptor Maurice Glickman. As a young adult, she also attended classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she met her husband-to-be Alan.
In 1952 at the age of 19, Serena married Alan Wilson, a percussionist and Dixeland band leader of the Jane Street Boys, with whom she would perform and collaborate with on numerous projects throughout her life. Their joint performance career began in the early 1950s when Alan’s band was hired to perform at a celebration that required a belly dancer. The band adapted their Dixeland repertoire to include well known musical renditions of the Middle East such as “Miserlou” and the “Sheik of Arabi.” Serena utilized her diverse dance traning, including the lessons with Ruth St. Denis, to improvise her version of Oriental dance with a water jug as a prop.
Following a brief period in New Orleans where Alan was stationed in the Army, Serena and Alan returned to New York. Through an old friend who was a member of the entertainers’ union, Serena gained her union card and thus the right to perform in nightclubs and at the Catskill Mountain resorts. Her decision to pursue dance coincided with the popularity of Middle Eastern restaurants that had started with the 1950s opening of Port Said. By 1960 New York’s show business paper Variety reported that:
"New York’s version of the Casbah is becoming one of the faster growing forms of nightclubbing. The belly dancer once relegated to the burlesque circuits and carnies is now in her glory in the cafes. The section is a bit of old cultures and customs that have obtained a foothold in New York. It is attracting many of those who used to go to Harlem for off beat entertainment, and who seek some of the more unusual aspects of night life."(4)
With the support of Armenian oud player Chick Ganimian, Serena got a job at the Egyptian Gardens in Greektown. Reflecting on her experience she later wrote a poetic and humorous account titled The Girl with the Star that reflected her experience dancing in New York’s Eight Street nightclub the Egyptian Gardens.
The Girl with the Star, by Serena
I sat on that stage, night after night,
And on my right sat the “Turkish Delite.”
Behind me, musicians, half asleep, bored.
Twanging bouzoukee, the guitar player snored.
“Egyptian Gardens” was the name of the place,
But the owners were Greeks, Ouzo flowed by the case!
Phoney palm trees adorned the dimly-lit walls,
While murals of dancing girls covered the halls.
The place was a “den” to some coming in,
And the sounds drifting out made a terrible din!
Sometimes, late at night, there would be a scene;
Glass flying, sailors fighting, drunk and mean.
But sometimes a stranger would sit and stare
At the Turkish girl’s leg, and the star drawn there.
Just below a dimpled knee,
She drew it there for all to see.
O’ Gypsy wonder with waist-length hair,
You sole-eyed beauty from God-knows-where.
Half saint, half devil, all women you are!
Just think, your admirers who travel so far,
Would give anything to sit for a night,
Just where I am, with you on my right.
Yes, I watched her dance a thousand times or so,
With the mark of a star, a long time ago.
Serena’s poem describes the experience of the American dancer in the nightclubs who is expected to sit next to the Turkish or Egyptian dancer and play finger cymbals or drums with the band when she is not performing. Her poem also conveys the complex position of the American dancer within an environment that participated in the exotification of the Orient through, as Serena phrases it, “Phoney palm trees adorned the dimly-lit walls, While murals of dancing girls covered the halls.” A restaurant which is owned by a Greek who was perpetuating an image of Egypt via the Egyptian Gardens. And yet, the dancer–in particular the Turkish and Egyptian dancers in the Greek town restaurants– symbolized for the Americans, especially women who flocked to see them, a sensuality they desired to inhabit; a desire that would cause the women to note the American dancer sitting next to the Turkish dancer and inquire how they could also learn to dance.
- This is the poem written by Serena Wilson that accompanied her video performance in the Greek temple that appeared on youtube following her death.
- She later changed her name to Serena.
- Personal Interview, May 2000.
- Quoted in Adam Lahm “Looking Back: The New York Middle Easten Dance Scene,” Arabesque 9/4 (November/December 1983) 6-7, 18-19.
Ready for more?
- 8-14-07 Tamalyn Dallal’s DVD- 40 Days and 1001 Nights, reviewed by Barbara Sellers-Young
Thus, the film did expand my visual awareness. Now, did it deepen or extend my understanding of what that diversity implied? My response would have to be no.
- 12-26-04 Scott Wilson’s CD "Efendi" review by Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan
Scott’s quest is to make Mid-East music more accessible to American audiences…
- 8-11-04 Scott Wilson’s CD “An American in Istanbul” review by Dhyanis
The entire CD is laced with instrumental solos featuring each artist, many of whom are from the Mid-East, most notably George Strathos on clarinet, plus Rip Wilson, Scott’s darabuka-playing Dad.
- 7-8-08 When Two Doors Close Two Doors Open, New Venues in New York City, by Sarah Skinner
Scott was thrilled with the new place and said it reminds him of the late night clubs in Istanbul, Turkey. At the end of the night I walked out into the hot summer air feeling invigorated and inspired.
- 9-13-08 Folk Tours 6th Annual Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp Report and Photos by Nina Amaya
held at Camp Greenlane in Pennsylvania, May 2008. The authenticity of the camp is amazing. I love Rakkasah and Tribal weekends as much as anyone else, but watching and listening to Arab musicians play Arab music and Turkish musicians play Turkish music, well, that adds a little something! After the nightly shows, the musicians keep playing to the wee hours and the camp dances in the big dining hall until we drop.
- 6-10-09 Carl Capture Character: Rakkasah Festival East, Saturday Dancers L-Z, photos by Carl Sermon
Latifa, Banat Al Beled, Leena, Lotus Niraja, Mahira Tribe, Mahrabesh, Majestic Hip, Malweh, MaShuqa, Mayumi, Nabila, Naheda, Natica, Nixies…
- “My Adventures in the Big Apple” by Nisima
So there was really a “mystique” in the 1980’s about dancing styles in other parts of the US, and especially about the New York style, so different from what we were used to in the Bay Area.
- 4-9-04 Who Died and Made You Queen of Dance?
This lack of background basic performing experience would be unheard of and un-tolerated in any other dance form
- 11-23-03 Egypta, a Revivification of Ancient Sacred Dance performed by The Silk Road Dance Company Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, Washington D.C. report by Pen Katali, M.L.S.
Egypta impressed me as a stunning artistic success, splendid beyond belief.
- 5-20-03 Loving Remembrance & Requiem: the Best “School” That Ever Was, Part 1 by Morocco/ Carolina Varga Dinicu
I looked at her & said, “If I can’t do better than that, I’ll hand in my feet!” A case of having more guts than brains.