A Belly Dance Museum! Are You Kidding? No, We’re Not.

November 09, 2016

2 comments


Early in September I was watching Channel One at 9:00 am as I was drinking my first cup of coffee and checking the day’s weather report. Suddenly, a segment came on that really peaked my interest. It was a piece on The Serena Belly Dance Museum. “This I have to see for myself,” I thought.

Serena in her prime

A week or so later, I paid a visit to 40 West 25th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) at 2:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon. The building itself is called The Showplace Design Center and inside, it’s a feast for the eyes. When entering, one sees a wide staircase down to the Lower Level where the exhibit is located in Gallery 110. The overall look behind this astounding collection, curated by Scott and Leni Wilson, is a “Turkish bazaar” and is filled floor to ceiling with fascinating memorabilia.

The exhibit features fascinating memorabilia in every square foot. 

A BRIEF HISTORY All of the items were collected over the years by a famous belly dancer, Serena Wilson (Scott’s mother) who was an entrepreneurial pioneer in many ways. She was born in New York on August 8, 1933 and died on June 17, 2007. Her parents were in vaudeville so she was introduced to the theatrical world at an early age. She married a musician named Rip at 19-years-old, and raised a son in her twenties. “She made me breakfast, took me to school, worked at home as a photo-retoucher during the day and danced at the Egyptian Gardens located at 29th Street and Eighth Avenue at night,” says her son, Scott.  

Serena’s book has appeared in four updated editions and is currently sold on Amazon

Photo: Courtesy of The Serena Belly Dance Museum

SERENA’S MANY ROLES Her training under Ruth St. Denis provided the path to a long career as a belly dancer. But her ability to reinvent herself coupled with a “can-do” spirit offered much more. Over the course of 40-plus years she opened a dance studio, hosted her own TV show and created her own dance troupe.

One of Serena’s prime aims was to promote belly dancing as an exquisite art form and she did this by publishing a book that explained the movements and intricacies of the dance. “The book came out in four versions and was updated each time,” says Scott. “And, to get the word out, the publisher sent Serena on a book tour all over the United States.” [And yes, you can still buy The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing on Amazon. I know because I checked.]

NOW IT’S THE BIG TIME In the early seventies a 27-year-old New York socialite, named Cassie Kernan, decided to take belly dance lessons. The media was intrigued and Life magazine gave a two-page spread and a third single page in its February 4, 1972 issue to Serena and her students. [One can still buy this particular issue on the web – I know because I checked.]

THE MET COMES CALLING The venerable Metropolitan Museum took possession of the ancient “Temple of Dendur”, had it dismantled in Egypt and shipped to the U.S. in 661 crates. Then, according to Scott, “It was installed in 1978 and, in the early eighties, the Met invited Serena to appear at the museum. She choreographed a Middle-Eastern-type dance for three of her troupe to perform a number of times in front of the Temple.”

The sandstone Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum; the gate to the temple is 27 ft. high x 13 ft. wide

THE BELLY DANCE COLLECTION currently on display is complete except for some larger pieces. Scott notes that, “This is probably 90 percent of it. We also have a Middle-Eastern-type Wurlitzer jukebox with 78s that plays Middle Eastern music. And we have many more belly dance costumes than we show here.” But the beat goes on. Serena’s techniques are still taught at Champion Studios located at 257 West 39th Street and Belly Dance America at 265 West 37th Street.

This belly dance outfit has coins that jingle when one shimmies. These costumes cost from $500 to $2,000. 

Scott and Leni bought this belly dance costume with stars-and-stripes at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The seller thought it was very funny because, as he said, “Everybody knows Americans don’t belly dance.”    

FUTURE PLANS Both Scott and Leni have started to explore the idea of selling the entire collection to a museum in order to retain the memory of Serena, a very special artist who was way ahead of her time.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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2 Responses

Marilynn
Marilynn

November 15, 2016

How fascinating, the history behind the scenes of New York. A business women ahead of her times.

Zaia Hadiyyah
Zaia Hadiyyah

November 10, 2016

I think it is a wonderful idea to have the items in a museum dedicated to the artform. This lady forms part of the history in this country and should be kept together for the serious artist in this genre to see and appreciate. I hope they will be careful and seek the councel from people like Morocco or some of the other serious scholars of the art form for a suitable venue and or owner.

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