Gilded Serpent presents...

Serena Wilson (1933-2007)
A Student of Ruth St. Denis

Part 2: Salome and Her Impact

Serena

by Barbara Sellers-Young PhD
posted February 2, 2010
Part 1 can be read here

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. 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.

Unlike many dancers, Serena never evolved a performance name that would imply an association between her and the Middle East. Although performing within the environments owned and operated by the entrepreneurs with ties to North Africa and the Middle East, her performance history was not linked to this community but instead to the vaudeville family in which she had grown up and to her dance study with Ruth St. Denis and images of Salome projected by Mary Garden and other performers. The movement vocabulary she learned performing in the Eighth Avenue clubs provided a gestural vocabulary that would allow her to follow a choreographic impulse to integrate these influences.

Mary GardenSerena’s was asked in 1974 to be a guest instructor at the Aegina Arts Center outside Athens, Greece. The location of the center provided an opportunity to travel in Greece and Turkey and to study dance with Ted Petrides, a professor of the esoteric dances of Ancient Greece. On her return, she began to define a movement vocabulary and choreographic style that would allow her to integrate her early training in ballet and St. Denis’ version of the Orient with her Middle Eastern vocabulary to create what she most often referred to as ‘Oriental dance.’

When suited to the context, she also had no hesitation in using the term belly dance as she considered the dance as evolving as an Americanized version based on primarily Middle Eastern as opposed to North African influences.

In her approach to the dance of the Middle East, she was at odds with her New York contemporaries, Ibrahim Farrah and Morocco, both of whom were interested in authentic dances of this social and cultural area. Serena admitted that the dance was not her ethnic heritage and described her stance in an interview:

"Despite the many approaches to the dance [belly dance], I believe that there are four basic groups: 1) strict ethnic and folk, 2) cabaret, 3) exercise and therapeutic, 4) interpretative concert. I consider myself  to be in the fourth group."(5)

Serena's Snake Dancer StatueIn placing herself within the community of interpretative concert dance, Serena emulated St. Denis in the determination to create within the Oriental dance a personal approach to the movement vocabulary and a similar determination to choreograph pieces that were based on images that held potency for her. One potent image for Serena was Salome and the various dancers who performed her on New York stages. On shelves and end tables throughout her apartment were various art deco statues based on portrayals of Salome by Mary Garden and other dancers and actors of the early twentieth century. 

The Salome Craze

The Salome craze, what Susan Glenn refers to as Salomania (96-125), is based on the story of Salome and her relationship with her step-father Herod and mother Herodius, The story was the subject of a play by British playwright Oscar Wilde. The play premiered in Paris in 1896, under the French title Salomé. In Wilde’s play, Salome becomes enamored with John the Baptist. When he refuses her affections she beguiles her step-father into agreeing to kill John the Baptist as a trade for dancing for him. In the finale, Salome takes up John’s severed head and kisses it.

Oscar WildeWilde’s play premiered in 1905, in New York. It was produced by the Progressive State Society and performed at the Berkeley Lyceum Theatre. The public barely noticed its presence. Two years later the Metropolitan Opera with sponsors such as J. P. Morgan and W. E. Vanderbilt attempted to produce Richard Strauss’s one-act version of the Wilde play. The play closed after one performance following a complaint from J.P. Morgan’s daughter about the salacious dance of the seven veils, a dance that, as one reviewer described, “spared the audience nothing in active and suggestive detail” (Bentley 2002, 18).  However, Bianca Froelich, Metropolitan Opera’s prima ballerina, who executed the Dance of the Seven Veils, subsequently contracted with the management of the  Lincoln Square Variety Theatre. Riding the wave of fascination with all things Oriental, Salome and her dance became a favorite of vaudeville houses and Florenz Ziegfield added a Salome number to his Follies. Other American entertainers such as Gertrude Hoffman and Eva Tanguay created their own version as well, as did Europeans Maud Allan and Ida Rubenstein, who brought their performances to New York.

Follies performer Mlle. Daze, actually Daisy Peterkin from Detroit, opened a school for Salomes. It quickly became popular and by 1908, Mlle. Daze was graduating 150 Salomes every month. Dancing the same routine, they entered the coast to coast vaudeville circuits.

 

As Bentley points out in Sisters of Salome, “By 1909 there was not a variety or vaudeville show in America that did not offer a Salome act as part of its entertainment” (2002, 40). And, in 1909, the Strauss Opera opened at the Manhattan Opera House with Mary Garden in the role of Salome. Although there were protests by some women with a more Victorian orientation, there were also many women who enthusiastically participated in Salomania. Andrea Deagon writes that “the lure of the dance went beyond professional performers. A 1908 New York Times article describes a women-only Salome party in which society women went dressed as Salome and some even demonstrated that they had not only succeeded in matching Miss Allan’s costume, but had learned some captivating steps and movements” (2005, 251)

Serena brought these images of the Salome’s of the past and the impact of Ruth St. Denis to the performances of the Serena Dance Theater and to her classes at Serena Studios, which at her death was located at 939 Eighth Avenue at 55th Street. The company gave its first performance in 1971 at New York City’s Town Hall at 123 West 43rd Street. A venue founded in 1921, it is noted for providing a combination of performances that span the spectrum of film, dance, Broadway and classical music. Ruth St. Denis and the Ted Denishawan and the Densishawn dancers performed in the hall on February 27, 1923. Titled “Mid East Diary,” Serena’s evening length narrative depicted a Victorian-era widow’s visit to the Middle East with her daughters. She repeated the piece for the Riverside Dance Festival in 1977. (6)

Rather than avoid the Orientalism implicit in dance crazes such as Salomania or the hootchi kootchie dancers of Coney Island, Serena revised the image with a choreographic whimsey in dances such as Kooch. Initially a solo for Serena, the dance features the image of a kooch dancer coming to life from a carnival pedestal.

Serena performs at RakkasahThe dance’s multi-part narrative begins as a statue who slowly comes to life as the carnival music plays in the background. The dancer begins discovering movement through the rhythm of the dancer’s finger cymbals and follows this discovery with an exploratory movement of arms, torso and hips. Suddenly, she takes note of the carnival pedestal and realizes her position as a carnival dancer. This realization causes her to drop to her knees and bend backward as if to avoid the reality of the situation. Eventually, she accepts the situation and returns quietly to the carnival pedestal.

The dance is emblematic of the history of Oriental dance in the United States–from its beginnings as salacious entertainment associated with carnivals to the attempts by dancers such as Serena Wilson to adapt the movement vocabulary to narrative.

In 1983, Serena won the Ruth St. Denis award which acknowledges the adaptation of ethnic-based forms for the stage. The choreography for which she won the award was titled “Sisters.” The focus of the piece is the rhythmic instrument used by dancers to accompany their performance, most commonly referred to as finger cymbals. The piece begins with two dancers dressed in leotards, sashes and circular skirts in different shades of blue facing each other center stage. Throughout the five minute piece, the dancers use various rhythms and counter-rhythms in a movement sound dialogue in which they move in and around each other incorporating Serena’s Oriental vocabulary in emotional expressions of aggression and accommodation, anger and love. At one point, the dancers undulate towards each other and lower themselves to the floor. With backs to each other, they slowly lean backward until their heads are resting on the shoulder of the other, establishing a level of intimacy and reliance on the body of the other. Standing, they move from this moment of dependence to independence, as they move away from each other in a series of imitative gestures, ending the dance in a kneeling contraction with hands swept back away from the body.

New York critics tended to ignore ethnic dance concerts unless they were part of city wide festivals such as the Riverside Dance Festival. Serena Wilson’s choreography was particularly problematic for reviewers as her choreography did not fit into the ethnic slot, nor was it a readable extension of Ruth St. Denis’ metaphysical images.

Finally, it was difficult for a reviewer to take this Oriental-based movement vocabulary of the torso and the pelvis and appreciate its potential for being as abstract as the gestural languages of modern dance and ballet. Belly dance’s historical position as popular culture had over identified the vocabulary with the carnie, the burlesque and the cabaret stage. Jennifer Dunning, in a 1978 New York Times review, stated that Serena’s separate pieces were “in fact a series of Belly-dancing numbers that were often hilarious, though perhaps unintentionally so”.(7)  Dunning was more generous in a 1986 New York Times review in which she observed: "…an infectiously cheerful humor, filled the stage when the Serena Dance Theater performed on Thursday at the Theater of the Riverside Church. Serena, the star and chief choreographer of the program, is a generous performer with a nice sense of humor and an uncanny, fleeting facial resemblance to Ruth St. Denis. Her dancers share her human and warmth. And there were several standout numbers in “Visions of Salome,” a program of 14 Eastern dances."(8)

Despite her desire to create an interpretative choreographic identity, Serena’s professional career was not considered by the critics to be a part of the modern dance community as was the career of her idol Ruth St. Denis. Serena was consistently identified as a member of the belly dance community. This designation was due in part to the position of belly dance within the New York community as popular restaurant and night club entertainment for the general public, and as an ethnic form for the North African and Middle Eastern community. In order to keep financially solvent, Serena performed as a dancer in the night club fantasy of the exotic Orient and she also trained dancers in her classes who performed this fantasy, including the lavish Egyptian productions she created for Club Isis in the 1990s. The choreographic ideas explored in pieces such as “Kooch” and “Sisters” were periodically incorporated into formal concerts that took place in venues such as the Town Hall, as well as performing at the opening of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and playing the role of the an Oriental dancer in the 1982 New York Opera’s production of Aida.

Through ongoing performances at these venues–the improvisational cabaret stage and formal stages such as the Riverside Theater–Serena was engaged in two separate New York performance communities. As Anne Rasmussen has noted (1990), the nightclub community had it roots in the negotiation of identity politics for the ethnic communities of North Africa and the Middle East. Rasmussen also points out that the primary focus of this negotiation was the tropes of Orientalism.

Following the lead of the New York dance critics, the big ‘D’ dance community found it difficult to find a relationship between belly dance as popular entertainment and belly dance as aesthetic product.

Regardless, Serena ultimately evolved a technique that transformed the improvisational, orally transmitted dance into a codified form that could be consistently taught in her studio and disseminated through books describing the movement vocabulary.   

End Notes:

5. Serena Wilson, “Serena,” Habib, 3/11, (1977) 3.
6.Riverside Dance Festival was sponsored by which Riverside Church a 150 church located in Manhattan’s upper west side near Columbia University. The festival was important to New York’s dance community as it was the only festival that brought together popular, ethnic, modern and classic dance forms. The festival closed in 1987 when the Church could no longer financially support it.
7. Jennifer Dunning, “Eastern Dance: Serena Wilson and Company,” New York Times (June 25, 1978).
8. Jennifer Dunning, “Eastern Offerings by Serena Theater,” New York Times (March 2, 1986).

Coming Soon:
Serena, Part 3: Serena’s Books

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  • 1-17-10 Serena Wilson (1933-2007) A Student of Ruth St. Denis, Part 1: Childhood by Barbara Sellers-Young PhD
    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. Her childhood and adolescent years intersected with the Vaudeville stage, on which she often appeared with her parents in the 1930s.
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    This lack of background basic performing experience would be unheard of and un-tolerated in any other dance form
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    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.
  • Shoo Shoo Amin, A Forgotten Treasure of the 80s
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  • Behind the IBCC, a Talk with the Founder, Yasmina Ramzy
    I wanted it to be more scholarly, no competitions and not a festival. I felt it was important that all viewpoints were shared.
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    Nagwa seems to have excelled in innovation and creativity with the new compositions. She dances with the old favorites, but shines with the new orchestras playing current pieces.
  • Is Belly Dancing Provocative?
    This stereotype of Belly dancing has caused me a lot of displeasure; it has made me angry to see how imprisoned in negative models Belly dancing still is,and how much it had lost since it was formerly an ancient art that honors the female body.

   |       |    8 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Catharae

    Feb 17, 2010 - 12:02:14

    Delighted to see the articles turning to our founding mothers in our schooling!  I have been studying and dancing for 20 years, and have developed a hunger for knowing about the dancers who preceded me – you know, on whose shoulders we stand….  Many youtube video snips help fill the gaps, and offer seeds to plant.  Names, faces, young and old – I just cannot see too much.  Thanks to all.

  2. No Gravatar
    Jenna

    Feb 17, 2010 - 12:02:23

    A correction — the club in mid-town Manhattan that Serena choreographed for in the 90’s was called club IBIS not Isis.

  3. No Gravatar
    Barbara

    Feb 19, 2010 - 08:02:53

    Thankyou so much
    I missed meeting Serena but she was such a huge influence on my dance journey as Miss Ruth was

    Love Barbara http://www.thedancingspirit.com

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