Dance authenticity


In the previous chapter, I focused on the history of Raqs sharqi and analyzed six timeframes separately.

In this chapter, I will bring these timeframes together focusing instead on the six analytical areas of:

  • authenticity
  • heritage
  • transculturality
  • change/traditions
  • transmission and influences on heritage

While the dance analysis was diachronic, in the sense that it built a story through time, this chapter is synchronic, as it draws from ideas spanning across different timeframes (albeit based on the historical insights provided by the dance analysis).

The six themes in this chapter reflect more closely the literature review and the conceptual framework.

The aim, for this chapter, is to delve deeper into these six areas and connect my findings more tightly with the sociological analysis.

Moreover, I have used more data from the interviews than I did in the dance analysis, as I wanted to provide further insight into practitioners’ individual experiences of their raqs sharqi practice.

I found that a synchronic and social analysis was better suited for this purpose.

Authenticity, UNESCO and the Nara Document

Article 13 of the UNESCO’s Nara Document on Authenticity (UNESCO, 1994) states that criteria for the judgment on authenticity:

…may include form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling, and other internal and external factors.

UNESCO (1994)

Even though the Nara Document pre-dates the 2003 Convention on Intangible Heritage, it paves the way for it, by recognizing that authenticity, even for monumental heritage, goes beyond its material aspects.

The 2005 UNESCO Operational Guidelines, include the same elements in their list of attributes that express authenticity, adding only two elements: ‘management systems’ (as part of traditions and techniques) and ‘language, and other forms of intangible heritage’ (UNESCO, 2005, p. 21).

Specific Values for Authenticity

One of my research aims was to assess the specific values for authenticity according to practitioners within the international Egyptian style raqs sharqi community.

My perspective was partially influenced by the elements listed in the Nara Document and, indeed, I found that some of those are more relevant to Raqs sharqi and more important for its practitioners than others.

For them, feelings, emotions, attitudes, and feeling for the music seem more important than artifacts (such as costumes and props), locations, or social occasions.

These intangible elements of feeling and attitudes (which are culturally shaped) are indissolubly linked to the human body.

In this respect, the ‘lived’ aspect of dance becomes prominent for the practitioners of this international community, in connection with the first circle of the model of (in/tangible) living cultural heritage described in 3.7 and inspired by Merlau-Ponty’s phenomenology.

Also, traditions such as the movement vocabulary, in the Raqs sharqi heritage discourse, are implicit in the sense that the use of some basic movements is taken for granted.

Restored Behaviour and Heritage

In the literature review (2.5), I came to the conclusion that each performance is unique as it happens once, but also never completely new because, as Schechner (2013, p. 29) argues, performances are made by bits of ‘restored behaviour’.

I also mentioned that there are two types of authenticity: an ‘objective’ level (relating to traditions) and a ‘subjective’ level (connected with participants’ feelings and attitudes, as highlighted by Daniel (1996) and Hashimoto (2003)).

I then stated that I would adopt a middle ground position, following a dialogical approach to heritage, which takes into consideration traditions, feelings and attitudes and the unique circumstances under which each performance takes place.

Before starting the data collection, I associated traditions with the restored behavior and feelings and attitudes with the individuality of the dancer and the uniqueness of each performance.

However, it has emerged that some feelings and attitudes are traditionally associated with a dance genre as a whole, and not only with individual dancers and/or performances.

Given the interpretive research paradigm I have adopted, I am not attempting to define an absolute authenticity standard for Raqs sharqi. Rather, the parameters of authenticity have emerged as part of the practitioners’ discourse.

People involved in heritage are key and, as Zhu (2015, p. 596) posits, ‘authenticity is no longer a property inherent in an object, but a projection from beliefs, context, ideology or even imagination’.

Moreover, the authenticity discourse can change over time and I agree with Weiss’ position on authenticity in music when she states that ‘authenticity is a relative, flexible, and malleable concept’ (Weiss, 2014, p. 519).

Movement Vocabulary

The first element I will unravel in this section is that of movements. As mentioned above and in 5.5.2, the adoption of a certain movement vocabulary is taken for granted, but it is possible to make variations in the dance.

Indeed, movements can be acquired perceptually, as highlighted following Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (3.4).

At the same time, following Giddens’ Structuration Theory (3.6), they can also be employed willingly as rules to abide by and/or as authoritative resources through which performers express agency.

Heritage, Kinemes and Allokines

As observed from the video analysis, there is a limited number of kinemes, which consist of hips, torso, and shoulder isolations, such as figures of eight, circles, hip drops, and shimmies.

There are, however, infinite numbers of allokines, given by variations in size of movements, layering, movement quality, contractions and release, direction, and many more subtle details.

Ibrahim Akef, for instance, only ‘identified “shimmies”, undulating movements . . . circles and “eights”, as well as . . . hip thrusts and drops as being the original “Sharqi” or oriental movements’ (Chamas, 2009, para. 12). Everything else, as my research participant Ann pointed out, is ‘flourishes and embellishments’.

In the dance analysis, I maintained that Soheir Zaki (5.5.2), in the specialist discourse, is seen as the quintessentially authentic Raqs sharqi dancer, ‘truly oriental’. The first authenticity elements, of a phenomenological nature, can be identified in feelings and emotions. The idea that dance expresses emotions is not new, Hanna (1999), for example, already asserted this.

In Raqs sharqi, however, expressing emotions is essential. For example, Randa (Dubinina, 2011) said once about Russian dancers that a lot are ‘very good, but no feeling.

You have to care about feeling’ and Nelly Fouad, about foreign dancers in general (Evanoff, 2012, para. 13) stated: ‘Technically fantastic . . . but they lack the feeling’. My research participants also agreed that feeling is essential. Lidia, for example, said that ‘technique is important but the emotion has to come first’.

What type of feelings should a Raqs sharqi dancer project? First of all, it is about the connection with the music and expressing the music and the lyrics of the song (if there are any). Abila, in her interview, stated:

When you see, even somebody like Randa Kamel, who dances very fast, very big, in a way that appeals to westerners and she still has a feeling for the music. If you watch somebody like Dina . . . when she’s really dancing she is so in the music.


Helen explained that for her authenticity is ‘a feeling for the music and if your audience feels that you really are expressing the music through your body, if they get that connection . . . then that to me is authentic’.

Francesca describes the feeling of Egyptian music and songs, by saying that:

Even when it’s very, very happy . . . there is always this little . . . melancholy that goes under . . . Turkish is less concentrated on feeling, not that they do not have feelings, but . . . the focus is more on the movement. In Egypt, the focus is on what the dancer has to say.

Francesca (Research volunteer for the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono)

Tarab, Feeling and Expression

The idea of feeling the music and expressing it to the audience is connected to the concept of tarab, which I mentioned previously (2.3, 3.4,, 5.5.2, 5.7.2).

This is a feeling of ecstasy and, for Joana Saahirah (2014), to achieve tarab ‘you have to become the music and the music has to be a part of who you are’.

Tarab involves the connection with the audience and, as Bordelon commented (2013: 45), ‘the audience members can identify with the dancer and thereby access the music in an entirely unique, physical fashion’.

The embodiment with the music eliminates the distinction between the tangible realm of the body and the intangible realm of the mind.

As Merleau-Ponty ([1945] 1992, p. 102) argued ‘the union of soul and body . . . is enacted at every instant’ and, as Preston-Dunlop contends (2010, p. 7), ‘embodying a dance work fuses all the participants in the event in a multilayered tangible process’.

The Audience and Authentic Raqs sharqi

The ability to connect with the audience also emerges as one of the authentic characteristics of raqs sharqi.

This idea is summarised by Raqia Hassan who stated that ‘never should a dancer dance only for herself’ (Taj, 2008, para. 23).

The connection with the audience is aimed at sharing a sense of tarab and it probably derives from the original social and celebratory function of Egyptian dances (indeed, Raqs sharqi dancers are still hired to perform at weddings).

As Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, p. 24) stressed, ‘what would a wedding be without dancing, a party without its dancer?’ In this respect, dance is a ‘field-specific practice’ that shapes the dancers’ habitus, which is ‘produced by practice of successive generations, in conditions of existence of a determinate type’ (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 97).

Because Raqs sharqi is a field-specific habitus, the type of feelings that dancers need to express are not only those that are in the music and the lyrics of the songs, but also culturally encoded body attitudes and feelings.

As Blacking (1983, p. 95) argued:

dance is a social institution and no matter how individual the inner world of a dancer may be, feelings are culturally encoded as soon as they are brought into action as dance.

Blacking (1983)

As highlighted in 5.7.7, foreigners who go to Egypt to learn the dance, notice the way in which Egyptians move and how this is reflected in the dance, their habitus.

Observations by Practitioners

From observations expressed by practitioners and the dance videos analysis, the embodied feelings that have emerged (as core dispositions in that habitus) are:

  • relaxation
  • softness
  • minimalism (i.e. small, internal movements, ‘hidden from the casual viewer’ (Ibsen al Faruqi, 1978, p. 10))
  • joy
  • playfulness
  • flirting
  • coyness
  • power
  • strength
  • sexiness/sensuality

My research participants highlighted the same feelings. Elindia, for example, explains that ‘Turkish dance is more flamboyant.

But, an Egyptian dancer’s movements, are more internalised’. Helen states that ‘Turkish to me looks a lot flashier, and a lot busier, whereas Egyptian, seems a lot calmer, even when it’s lively . . . a bit more introspective’.

They also noticed the power and strength in Raqs sharqi. Lorna, talking about the essence of Egyptian raqs sharqi, explains that ‘there is a strength, a feminine strength, a pulling back of power’ and Angela states that what makes this dance Egyptian is ‘an attitude . . . really expressive confidence. . . . almost a sassy informality’.

Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, p. 95), as mentioned earlier (5.7.2), thinks that ‘Oriental dance . . . embodies all the faces of a woman’.

As for sexuality, as it is expressed in Raqs sharqi, she stresses that (ibid, p. 167-168) ‘in the West, few know that Islam gives an important role to the intimate life, to conjugal relations. Sexuality is . . . an aspect of life that is treated naturally’.

Sexuality though is often associated with coyness, as Nimeera (no date, para. 9) said about Soheir Zaki ‘she was known for her sweet facial expression, at times just a little saucy.

Mostly she used a sweet smile, coyly looking away’. This attitude is explained by Adra (2005, p. 42) who states that traditional belly dancing is play, in which social restraints are allowed to be lowered, if dance is performed ‘at home and between close friends’.

The relaxation of raqs sharqi can be explained by a different perception of time that Egyptian people traditionally have. Joana explained that:

The way people live, is so much slower than the way people live in the West . . . in terms of dance, there is a tranquillity, a slowness and a kind of stillness. And time to enjoy each moment that foreign dancers don’t have. They have to train themselves to do that. Because . . . we are raised to run and achieve as much as possible in the shortest possible time.

Joana (Research volunteer for the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono)

This relation of time with movement is a good example of phenomenological habit, in the sense that the body, as Merleau-Ponty ([1945] 1992, p. 158) would say, ‘projects itself into a cultural world and has its habits’.

Moreover, the body ‘inhabits space’ and time and ‘actively assumes them’ (ibid, p. 117). The slowness of the dance, indeed, is the languor which, Farida Fahmy (1987, p. 13) explains, ‘is in fact, the culturally specific body language of the Egyptian people’.

Another culturally coded feeling in Raqs sharqi is elegance and this reflects the baladi/afrangi dichotomy present in this dance. Ann, for example, stated that Egyptian Raqs sharqi, compared to Turkish oriental, is ‘more elegant, more linear, more upright’.

As observed during the dance analysis, the roots of Raqs sharqi are in Baladi dance, but it was performed for an afrangi audience, which was influenced by transcultural elements and which sought an ‘elegant’ uplifted feeling in the dance.

So, Raqs sharqi reflects the dispositions of two different segments of Egyptian society, ‘embedded in the agents’ very bodies in the form of mental disposition’ (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 15), resulting in a ‘class hybridism’.

In addition to these culturally encoded feelings, in the Raqs sharqi discourse, there is an appreciation for the agency of the performer, being authentic to yourself, rather than just to the dance.

This is expressed through the dancer’s individualism and qualities such as: spontaneity; honesty; humour; charisma; dancing ‘from the heart’.

Dancers are encouraged to develop their own style rather than blindly copying other dancers. In this respect, if dance traditions are compared to social structures, ‘structure is not to be equated with constraint but is always both constraining and enabling’ (Giddens, 1984, p. 25).

Thus, for Raqs sharqi dancers, traditions are both constraining and enabling in the sense that Raqs sharqi traditions (movement vocabulary, music, artifacts) enable dancers to express themselves.

Because of this focus on spontaneity, improvisation is preferred to choreography

Choreography is used in Raqs sharqi, but improvisation is the ultimate goal. Randa Kamel, for instance, said ‘when I am dancing I never do choreography’ (Beltran, 2010).

Live Music Influence

In connection to how being performed to live music influences the preference for improvisation over choreography, Lorna said in her interview:

I only ever improvise, I never choreograph and I think that’s the case with quite a lot of Egyptian dancers as well . . . you can’t really 100% choreograph everything because you are working with a live band.

So, you get there and you’ve choreographed something to go with the violin and the violinist is sick, so they’ve sent a nay[1] player instead. So, you have to adapt.

In the Raqs sharqi discourse, moreover, copying other dancers is discouraged; you can learn and be inspired but not copy blindly.

Francesca, for example, said that ‘imitating is not really the best way to grow up when it comes to dancing for me what is beautiful in dance is that everyone can put inside something of themselves’.

Similarly, Diana (Esposito, 2014, para. 7) states:

Just because we dance exactly like someone we all know and love says nothing about our own abilities. If anything, it stunts our growth as artists, as we never give ourselves a chance to explore our own ways of moving.

Diana (Esposito, 2014)

Joana, also gives a similar view as a teacher, ‘oriental dance is about bringing up the best in you. . . . It’s the most beautiful thing when I see a student, becoming her own person’.

As being able to express the feeling of the music is central, musicality is considered essential.

From the video analysis, I noticed that musicians are often present in dance scenes from the movies, with the instruments highlighted, by zooming in on them.

Also, musicians sometimes composed music especially for dancers (5.5.1, 5.5.2), so music and dance were and still are strictly connected. Indeed, for Helen, ‘Arabic music and Arabic dances . . . are tied together’ and Abila was drawn to Egyptian music because ‘the music had a lot more changes and . . . it had a lot of stuff going on’.

In 5.7.7 I highlighted the importance, for foreign dancers who work in Cairo, of dancing to live music and also of dancing for Egyptian, rather than non-Egyptian, audiences, because they understand the dance much more deeply.

This is because the dance and the audiences share the same social ‘field’, of which they know the rules, and possess the correct ‘cultural capital’ that allows them to understand Raqs sharqi to the full.

As previously observed (5.7.9), musicians who can play Egyptian Raqs sharqi music are rare outside of Egypt. Similarly, dancers outside of Egypt can rarely perform for Egyptian audiences.

This means that, although it is possible to dance as authentically as possible outside of Egypt, part of its essence is lost and cannot be reproduced, as performers have to dance to recorded music and adapt their performance to satisfy audiences that have different expectations and taste.

The implications of this, are that, as living heritage becomes transcultural, inevitably it loses some of its authenticity and it risks becoming ‘grobalized’, to borrow a term from Ritzer (2008), according to whom grobalization leads to centralization in control and simplification and standardization of things.

Finally, although Raqs sharqi is now performed worldwide, many practitioners travel to Egypt to perceive the culture of origin of this dance in its entirety, as a full sensory experience, phenomenologically. As Leena explained to me, if you travel to Egypt, you can learn better because:

That way you can meet the people in their own environment and see how they live in their country. Listen to how they speak, taste what they eat, smell what they smell and hear what they hear.

Leena (Research volunteer for the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono)

Not every practitioner agrees on the importance of going to Egypt to fully understand the dance.

For those who have never been there, it is enough to learn from Egyptians who travel abroad to teach, or from DVDs or by watching videos online.

Also, most practitioners agree that, if you only want to learn Raqs sharqi for fun, you do not need to go to Egypt as there are already many good teachers abroad.

However, those who have been there to study, agree that you have to go if you want a deeper understanding of the dance. Ann enthusiastically makes this point by saying, ‘it still comes back to that feeling.

Of you are there, wow! You know, I’m here in Egypt, and it’s kind of invading me! And it’s taking me over’.

Not all the elements listed here need to be present for a performance to be considered Raqs sharqi, as authenticity is a complex and multi-layered phenomenon.

For example, a dancer like Randa does not move softly, nor slowly or with languor.

However, she is considered authentic because she has a feeling for the music, is very expressive, uses Egyptian music and, being Egyptian, she has a great understanding of the lyrics of the songs.

Also, her training is rooted in traditional Egyptian dances and she has observed and studied thoroughly Raqs sharqi dancers from the past.


1 – The nay is a type of flute, used in Middle Eastern music (Farraj et al., 2007).

Next Page >> In the findings section I next cover what I found regards Heritage Qualities and Value Findings.