A Student of Ruth St. Denis
Part 3:Serena’s Books
by Barbara Sellers-Young PhD
posted March 16, 2010
Part 1 can be read here
Part 2 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.
The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing and The Belly Dance Book (9)
Now we have another page in the history of dance with the Serena technique: blending the old with the new; searching for the natural and ultimate truth of woman. But this is where we come in….now it’s your turn to write some history! (Serena Wilson, 1972, 20)
In 1972, the same year that Ms. magazine first appeared on the stands, Serena, with her husband Alan Wilson, made one of the first attempts to systematize the movement vocabulary of belly dance in the The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing.(10)
The introduction to the book clearly defines Serena’s position:
"I have chosen dance as my way to self-expression because it represents the qualities of poise, grace, stamina, femininity, and an enormous challenge to free creativity. When I say free creativity, I mean that the movements are natural to a woman rather than distorted and artificial as they are in ballet. The technique I have created is mine, just as Shakespeare’s plays are his. Words were in existence long before Shakespeare used them, but what he created was new. Women danced belly dance thousands of years before I came along, but what I have done with the steps is new. Actually my dance shouldn’t be called belly dance at all, but it is a version of it, and since the term is so well known, I’ll let it stand….at least for a while". (1972, 3-4)
With the publication of her technique, Serena approached questions regarding a woman’s role in society and related sexual expression that had become part of the national discourse. In this national discussion there were a range of opinions, expressed most succinctly by two east coast women, Helen Gurley Brown and Betty Frieden. Helen Gurley Brown’s 1963 publication Sex and the Single Girl provided advice on the art of being a woman and how women could fill their lives with romance and delectable men. Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique was also published in 1963 and approached women’s politics from a completely different angle. Frieden, who would found the National Organization of Woman in 1966, shared in her manuscript the results of a questionnaire she had distributed to her 1942 Smith College graduating class. The women’s responses indicated that they were dissatisfied with a position in society in which their primary identity and meaning was through their role as wife and mother. In combination, these two books brought to public attention a series of questions, including:
What was the private and public role of an intelligent, competent, capable woman? How did she negotiate an identity that allowed her to express her sensual side? Or to engage in sexual activity? How did a potential new image of herself as a woman integrate with a public conception of wife and mother?
Serena Wilson, with the publication of The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing, was fashioning a performative space which attempted to play between the separate articulations of the feminine offered by Brown and the Frieden. A woman could express her sensuality, but still embody a very traditional notion of the feminine.
Essentially, she used the Orientalist trope of the dance as a representation of the feminine in order to evolve a technique that physically embodied her concept of femininity, of which the three major attributes were poise, grace and stamina.
In her book Serena did not negate the popular conception of the dance as sexually simulating to men. In fact, she advocates in the introduction of the book that the dance is not an arousal for men, but is alternatively an individual experience of a woman’s sexuality through her demeanor of femininity which by its presentation would be attractive to men. Or as she states it, “A woman who is capable of arousing herself is also attractive and arousing to men as an entire being rather than just as a sexual toy” . Her feminine beauty is holistically defined according to Serena by her “control and grace”; a state which is not limited by age because “an active, interested, enthusiastic, flexible woman is young” . This embrace of the body’s femininity through the dance contributes to the overall well being of the participant’s physical and emotional well being and positively influences important aspects of her life associated with childbirth and marriage.
Consequently, Serena argues for the dance’s position within the life of a woman to create an identity that can maintain personal health and familial relationships, while still providing opportunities for creative and sensual expressiveness.
Serena provides a detailed example of how a woman balances all aspects of her self in the instructional segment of the book. It is divided into how to warm-up the body, those steps that are in the beginner, intermediate and advanced categories followed by a short choreography for each which are labeled routines. The student is encouraged to learn the movements in front of a mirror, in order to observe whether or not they are performing the movement in a manner that combines “a state of tension” with an attitude of relaxation; and to be certain that “movements are never jerky or sudden”. Beyond this, each section (referred to as a step, of which there are 85 illustrated steps in all) is designated as an appropriate exercise for specific body types (that have been identified in the “How to use this book” chapter) as: 1) Normal, 2) Riding Breeches Type, 3) Shoulder and Breast Bigness, 4) Belly and Thigh Bigness, 5) Large Extremities, and 6) Juvenile. For example, Step 18–Parallel Arm Circle is designated as especially good for body types 3, 5, and 6. Performed to slow music step 18 integrates a gesture of the arms with a flexion and extension of the spine. Step 22 or Turkish Arm Pose focuses on the isometric use of arms in a palms together gesture above the head which is supposed to be good for body types 3 and 6. Those with body type 4, belly and thigh bigness are encouraged to focus on steps such as step 23 Hip Extension and step 25 Hip Circle.
For those readers wanting to focus specifically on steps related to their body type, there is an appendix at the end of the book that outlines the steps for each body type. Serena’s goal for the reader is for them to develop a body that is toned and capable of sensual expression.
The book contains detailed photos of Serena performing each of the 85 steps. The names of the steps suggest Serena’s interweaving of movements she learned while working in restaurants and nightclubs with those that were part of her previous dance background or borrowed from Hollywood films. For instance, the basic posture is a variation of a ballet stance of shoulders down, chest arched, and knees slightly flexed with feet slightly turned out. Step number 43, Basic Kashlimar in 9/8 time is an evolution of a Turkish couple dance. The Hindoo Arm of step number 35 is adapted from Hollywood choreographer Jack Cole. Other steps have names that would identify them with a region such as Anatolia or with an image of North Africa and the Middle East, as in the Camel, Arabic Coffee Mill, Oasis, or Hubble Bubble. Those steps not otherwise designated by dance style or image are named for the part of the body’s anatomy engaged in the movement–Hip Roll with Walk, Hip Circle, Belly Flutter, Hip Twist, etc. The steps gain in complexity as the reader moves from the beginning to intermediate and advanced, with several variations and combinations added. At the same time, readers are reminded that the dance is an opportunity for them to use the movement vocabulary as a basis to create a unique expression of themselves.
The dance direction Serena provides in The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing is similar to the directions she gave when teaching class. She advised students in a beginning class that the “dance is not difficult, what is difficult is the postural basis of the dance.”(11) With each new movement she coached students to “maintain the rib cage high, keep the knees relaxed, and allow the energy to shoot through the finger tips to allow for beautiful hands and beautiful wrists.”(12). Intermediate students studying how to manipulate a three yard length of cloth referred to as a veil were reminded to “keep the arms nice and high in order to maintain a beautiful posture.”(13) In an advanced class in which the class was observing videos of Egyptian dancer Fifi Abdou, Serena pointed out to the students that Fifi’s sassiness interacted with her overall demeanor of soft femininity.
The intermediate and advanced chapters end with a sample routine or choreography that lists a set of steps for the student.
The advanced chapter also includes a witty ‘No-No List’ of what not to do when performing. For example, a dancer is not to tilt the pelvis toward the audience either in a standing or kneeling position as this is the vocabulary of a stripper.
Unless the performer wants to be considered as performing the Cecil B. De Mille version of the dance they should never lift their leg above the waist. Stroking the body is considered not only vulgar but also an indication they have the personality of a narcissist. The dancer who rolls around on the floor appears more like a carpet sweeper than a dancer. Jerky arms that move quickly up and down are great for hailing a taxi, but have no place on the dance floor. And there is the Hollywood Sphynx who performs with “one hand under the nose pointing forward, the other hand at hip level pointing to the rear, with knees bent. Usually combined with a slow walk and a smouldering expression of the eye” .
Serena also gives information on how to make a costume and how to organize and stage a performance. This advice is pivotal for the student, as all students are expected to perform either at small informal events which take place in the studio or at events held in the community at local restaurants and other venues.
These events attended by other students (friends of the student with an audience primarily of women) were an opportunity for a woman to demonstrate her ability to perform the technique and thus demonstrate her creation of a new form of femininity that was in most cases in opposition to the one in which she was inculcated as a child.
Through repetition, Serena taught in the book and the studio what I refer to as the ‘postures of the feminine’. These postures acknowledge the sensuality of the female body through the interplay of hips and torso graciously integrated with head, arms and hands. Serena’s ‘postures of the feminine’ did not include movements that obviously highlighted the pelvis or breasts or brought the audience into visual view of the dancer’s crotch, as does the leg lifted over the head. Serena expands upon the idea of posture in her second book published in 1984 and titled simply The Belly Dance Book. In this book she devotes the entirety of Chapter Fourteen to “Poses and Props.” The women pictured in the chapter provide an extended glimpse into definitions of femininity as they lift a hip with one hand behind the head and other on the hip, kneel with one hand lifted over the head and the other on the hip, reach upward with the arms as they gaze upward, hold cane with one hip lifted, balance candles and swords on their heads, hold one or more snakes on their arms and torsos, sweep a fabric over their body and through the space that surrounds them, and finally holding a feathered fan around the back of hips, turn to face the audience. The poses are reminiscent of the Hollywood films Serena references as part of Chapter Two, “History.” In each case, feminine presence is to bring pleasure to her male partner–because of the dancer’s acknowledged sensuality–but does not spatially challenge him through inappropriate or physically aggressive behavior.
In this regard, Serena was teaching through the ‘postures of the feminine’ a form of gender display which Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter (1993) locates in her theory of performativity; in particular the aspect of learning a dance form which requires constant repetition or what Butler refers to as iterability. For Butler performativity and repetition, or iterability, are intertwined as it is repetition of an act which ultimately defines subjectivity. As she phrases it, “this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that ‘performance’ is not a singular ‘act’ or event, but a ritualized production”. Students came to the studio with one set of gender displays learned as a child in a socialization process that Pierre Bourdieu would refer to as habitus (1980). Serena’s technique challenged and reoriented their notion of the feminine and provided opportunities to perform their new “postures of the feminine” borrowed from Hollywood images in the safety of a community of women in the studio and in the more public environment of restaurants and New York stages.
Serena’s approach saw women as joyful, soft, and feminine. They were responsible for and in control of their sensuality and by extension their sexuality. The dancers were not encouraged to challenge men by their physical presence, but neither was their physical presence and personal desire controlled by men.
The control remained with the dancer and in her dancing the revelation of desire. It might be observed by men, but was not created by their gaze. This is a subtle distinction that was articulated with the gender politics of the 1970s by Judy Alves-Masters 1979 research Changing Self-Esteem of Women Through Middle Eastern Dance. Her research demonstrated that the dance gave women permission to be powerful sensual beings in public as well as private spaces, and, by extension in positions of public power. As a result, dancers often describe their experience of learning the dance as transformative.
Within Serena’s approach, there was no place or space for the male dancer. Belly dancing was a representation of the feminine and male dancers were by definition male and could not represent the feminine. The movement vocabulary and the aesthetic of the dance did not permit it. Besides which, Serena’s history of the dance as outlined in the Serena Technique of Belly Dancing and the Belly Dance Book moves from the functional dances of fertility associated with tribal groups, to the street versions of the 1893 Chicago World’s Faire, to visions of the Orient of St. Denis, and the revisionist performances of Casino Opera House in Cairo, Egypt. The male dancers spoken of by Edward Lane (1973) and Metin And (1996) in their descriptions of the dances of Egypt and Turkey are erased in Serena’s version as are the performances of Mohammed the male dancer of the Chicago Faire (Carlton, 1994). Serena’s historical rendition is indicative of the history of the dance in New York City. The Orient was feminine and the dancers, whether they were on Coney Island, on Broadway or the Greek Clubs of 8th Avenue, were creating representations of the feminine.
Within her history of belly dance, Serena references not only Ruth St. Denis, but also her contemporary Isadora Duncan. She indicates that neither dancer had much regard for ballet. She quotes Duncan as saying:
"Those who enjoy it [ballet] see no farther than the skirts and tricots, but look under the skirts, under the tricots are dancing deformed muscles. Look still further; underneath the muscles are deformed bones. A deformed skeleton is dancing before you. This deformation through incorrect dress and incorrect movement is the result of the learning necessary to the ballet. The ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman’s body. No historical, no choreographic reasons can prevail against that!" (Wilson, 1972, 19)
Serena follows this quote with reference to both dancers as preaching “the naturalness, healthful benefits, the creative expression, the femininity,
Serena’s placement of St. Denis and Duncan as Oriental dancers within the history of belly dance is an attempt to connect belly dance’s evolution in the United States with the history of modern dance.
This is not a statement dance scholars have made, or would make, as Duncan’s and St. Denis’s legacy is continued through the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation and former Denishawn dancers, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and the dancers trained by each of them. The distinction between Serena as an interpretative belly dancer and the legacy of Ruth St. Denis was alluded to by St Denis in her statement, “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” (242). Serena identifies herself with the freedom of the female body ascribed to by Duncan and St. Denis, but does not conceive of herself as an abstraction. Instead, Serena’s aim is to revise an interpretation of the feminine for women who had just discovered the freedom of the birth control pill. For women searching for a new definition of femininity, Serena provided it and through publications such as The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing that ultimately reached beyond New York City to women throughout the United States.
9. Serena and Alan Wilson collaborated with three books, Serena Technique of Belly dance (1972), The Belly Dance Book (1983); and The Legacy of Little Egypt: A History of the Belly Dance in America (1994).
10. Other ‘how to’ books on belly dance written in the early 1970s were Sula and Roman Balladine’s The Secrets of Belly Dancing, California: Celestial Press, 1972; Julie Russo and Marta Schill’s The Compleat Belly Dancer, New York: Doubledaly, 1973; and Dahlena’s Art of Belly Dancing, New York: Bantam Press, 1975.
11. From class observation May, 2000.
Coming soon!– Alan (Rip) Wilson’s additional notes regarding this 3 part article by Barbara.
Ready for more?
- 1-17-10 Serena Wilson (1933-2007) A Student of Ruth St. Denis, Part 1: Childhood
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.
- 2-2-10 Serena Wilson (1933-2007) A Student of Ruth St Denis, Part 2: Salome and Her Impact
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.
- 10-19-09 The Bellybutton Revolution, Feminism & Bellydance
When I grew up and became a bellydancer, needless to say, my Mom was perplexed and wondered where she had gone wrong..
- 8-14-07 Tamalyn Dallal’s DVD- 40 Days and 1001 Nights
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"
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”
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.
- 5-26-08 A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt,
Van Nieuwkerk had as her main objective an examination of the professions of musician and belly dancer in contemporary Egypt and an identification of the influence of these professions on the status of their practitioners, the underlying question being "Are dancers and singers considered disreputable, and if so, for what reasons?"
- 3-3-08 Academics and Belly Dance, Two Books Review
Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism & Harem Fantasy edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young & Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power by Anthony Shay
- 3-21-01 A Book Review: Iris Stewarts’s "Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance"
For years, I’ve used dance and movement to commune with the Divine.
- 3-12-10 Creating Camp Negum
The idea came to us as we laid on the beach at Ras Sidr, a resort town near Suez on the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula. It was one of those rare times when my husband, Safaa Farid, and I could slip away from work for two days. We were watching the wind surfers and listening to Om Kalthoum on the clubhouse speakers when the question just popped out.
- 3-10-10 Ask Yasmina #12: The Importance of Oum Kalthoum, Undercutting, and Kid Bellydancers
When a client hiring a performer or a student looking for a teacher is at a point where they want quality, they know they have to pay a fair price.
- 3-3-10 A Sense of Humor: It can Help! Quest for Beauty, Part 3
What follows here are several humorous anecdotes. Some of them are about being a male in a female dominated field while some are merely about being a Bellydancer in the first place. My first rule concerning being weird ("weird" as evidenced by some reactions to my previous articles) is to have a good sense of humor!
- 3-2-10 Latest Craze- Egyptian Oriental Dance, The Fitness Benefits of Our Dance
This is a fabulous idea, except for the very important and primary fact that the majority of efforts in this direction have attempted to fit this archetype of feminine activity into the current prevailing masculine model of linear strengthening and tightening, complete with fitness speak, crunches, squats and sweat!
- 2-26-10 Life as a Bellydancer: A Dancer’s Dilema
Next came my surprising reality check. It stung me pitifully when I was introduced at my family reunion as "Evelyn’s daughter, the Kootch dancer"! I still thought of myself as a graduate student, learning fascinating things about ethnic studies and folklore.