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Serena Wilson, 73; teacher popularized belly dancing

Serena Wilson, a noted dancer, teacher and choreographer who was widely credited with helping to popularize belly dancing in the United States, died last Sunday in New York. She was 73 and a resident Manhattan.

The cause was a pulmonary embolism, her son, Scott, said. Ms. Wilson had been scheduled to dance with her son's Middle Eastern band, Scott Wilson and Efendi, at Le Figaro Cafe in Greenwich Village the night she died.

For four decades, Ms. Wilson ran Serena Studios, one of the first large-scale ventures in the country devoted exclusively to belly dancing, offers instruction as well as dancers for hire. Ms. Wilson, who published several books on the subject, also taught workshops throughout the United States and abroad.

Though some practitioners disdain the phrase belly dancing as inauthentic (they prefer Oriental dance ), Ms. Wilson embraced the term. Her mission, as she often described it, was less ethnography than entertainment: She sought not to recreate traditional women's dancing exactly as it was performed in Turkey and the Middle East but rather to adapt its mesmerizing movements and shimmering costumes for rapt American audiences.

Ms. Wilson's dance troupe, known most recently as Serena Dance Theater, appeared often throughout New York City. Reviewing a performance by the troupe at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 2001, The Village Voice wrote:

"Her dancers, working those rhumba, chiftetelli, and kashlimar rhythms, showed classic Serena training -- elegant carriage, willowy arms, and hips that make tiny flicks like a clock's second hand. Highlights included Sahar's gold wings rippling a la Loie Fuller, a duo undulating with swords balanced on wrists or hips, and a third dancer toting a plate of blazing candles on her sliding head."

Serene Blake was born in the Bronx on Aug. 8, 1933; she changed the spelling of her name as a young adult. As a child, she performed with her parents' vaudeville act, Blake & Blake, which did musical and comedy numbers.

She also studied with the celebrated dancer Ruth St. Denis, who was known for her sinuous, Eastern-inspired choreography. In 1952, she married Alan Wilson, a percussionist and bandleader, and later earned a degree in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

One day in the early 1950s, Wilson's band was booked for an engagement that required a belly dancer. Never mind that it was a Dixieland band; Wilson quickly got hold of arrangements of Middle Eastern standards like "Miserlou." His wife, drawing on her training with St. Denis, gamely volunteered to dance.

"She managed to get through it," Wilson, who is known as Rip, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "She carried a vase on her shoulder in order to disguise the fact that she didn't know what to do with her hands."

That was the start of a fascination with belly dance on the part of both Ms. Wilson and her husband, who learned Middle Eastern drumming and often performed with his wife.

Ms. Wilson honed her craft dancing at the Egyptian Gardens, a nightclub in Chelsea on a stretch of Eighth Avenue then known as Greektown, which was lined with Greek and Middle Eastern cabarets. Before long, she had become one of the city's leading belly dancers, even dancing in the city council chambers for Mayor John V. Lindsay, her husband said.

She opened her own studio in the mid-1960s. Business boomed until the Gulf War, in 1991, when, as Ms. Wilson told The Wall Street Journal, "There are people who just don't want to be reminded of things Middle Eastern." (These days, Ms.Wilson said, "The prejudice isn't there the way it used to be.")

Ms. Wilson leaves her husband and son (an oud player), both of Manhattan.

Her books, all written with her husband, are "The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing" (Drake Publishers, 1972); "The Belly Dance Book" (McGraw-Hill, 1983); and "The Legacy of Little Egypt: A History of the Belly Dance in America" (Serena Studios, 1994).

Early in her career, Ms. Wilson had to work hard to dispel popular misconceptions about belly dancers. Yes, they were feminine, sensual, even sultry, but they were not -- not, she emphasized -- strippers. Even now, to drive home the point, Serena Studios will furnish dancers for bachelorette parties but not bachelor, bat mitzvahs but not bar mitzvahs.