To Cite This Article:
Lo Iacono, Dr Valeria. (2020) “Authenticity and its implications for Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Case Study of the Dance Genre Egyptian Raqs Sharqi.” Journal of Dance Heritage 1 (1): 1–45.
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The 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage allows dance to be officially recognized as heritage and included in UNESCO’s heritage lists. Authenticity is one of the conditions that UNESCO requires for the recognition of monumental heritage (regulated by the 1972 UNESCO Convention) but it does not feature among the requirements for the award of ICH status.
The reason being that authenticity is a problematic concept, which reflects power dynamics, has often been used for political aims, and can lead to the freezing of ICH into immutable forms. Moreover, authenticity is particularly problematic for dance, because dance is embodied, changeable, and transcultural.
Nevertheless, the 2003 Convention on ICH contains implicit references to authenticity and this concept still seems relevant to the communities who engage with such heritage. This makes authenticity a topic worth exploring to investigate if a fluid, dialogical, and community-centered understanding of it can be provided.
Research on Egyptian Raqs sharqi, with data gathered through a qualitative methodology (using interviews and analysis of videos and texts available online), provides a case study that shows how the tangible and intangible elements of heritage contribute to the authenticity discourse constructed by an international community of Egyptian Raqs sharqi practitioners in the twenty-first century.
Key Terms: Authenticity; Intangible Cultural Heritage; UNESCO; dance; raqs sharqi; belly dance
With its 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)(UNESCO 2003), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) widened its understanding of cultural heritage from the field of monuments, buildings and sites (as per the 1972 Convention (UNESCO 1972)), to include knowledge and practices, such as the:
- Andean cosmovision of the Kallawaya (Bolivia)
- performing arts including flamenco (Spain) and Bigwala dance and music (Uganda)
- oral traditions such as the Vedic chanting (India)
- social practices, including the Mesir Macunu Festival (Turkey)
- and traditional craftsmanship, such as the Tinian marble craftsmanship (Greece) (UNESCO 2017).
UNESCO labeled all the above expressions of human cultures Intangible Cultural Heritage or ICH.
ICH, according to the 2003 Convention, is to be safeguarded, through measures that include “identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage” (UNESCO 2003, 2).
But what precisely needs safeguarding and how do we understand the authenticity of these elements of ICH? The idea of authenticity has been discussed in various UNESCO documents and in particular: the Issues arising in connection with the implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 1977); the Nara Document on Authenticity (UNESCO 1994); and the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 2005). Of these documents, the 2005 “Operational Guidelines” report is particularly important in that it identifies authenticity as one of the characteristics that must be present, in order for an item to be added to UNESCO’s heritage lists.
However, as Bortolotto (2013) and Deacon and Smeets (2013) point out, the term authenticity does not appear in the 2003 UNESCO Convention, rather it “has been discouraged by the Organs of the Convention” (Deacon and Smeets 2013, 139).
Moreover, the Yamato Declaration, as also pointed out by Bortolotto (2013) and Deacon and Smeets (2013), states that “the term ‘authenticity’ as applied to tangible cultural heritage, is not relevant when identifying and safeguarding intangible cultural heritage” (Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs and UNESCO 2004, para. 8).
Bortolotto (2013) and Deacon and Smeets (2013) argue though that the concept of authenticity is still implicitly present in UNESCO’s ICH discourse and that it is still relevant to communities and, as such, the idea of authenticity should not be discarded.
This paper argues that an alternative understanding of authenticity is necessary for ICH legislation, as the practices ICH seeks to protect are lived, embodied, transcultural and transient in nature. Indeed, it has been argued that dance is ephemeral, but also permanent.
Dance has been considered ephemeral by scholars such as Mackrell (1997) on the grounds of factors such as:
- each performance being unique
- different viewers interpreting the same performance in different ways
- performances changing depending on the bodies of different dancers who perform it at different times
- having no common object against which to test our opinion and not yet having a satisfactory way of recording dance.
Conversely, McFee (1992) argues that dance is permanent because, even taking into consideration the differences between each performance, the audience interpretation and the bodies of different dancers, each performance of a certain choreography can be recognized as such every time, as the choreography acts as a ‘recipe’ on which the dance is modeled.
In this paper, it will be argued that dance can be both changeable and permanent, due to the existence of culturally and socially shaped traditions, which can change, but that also shape specific genres as individually recognizable entities.
These dance traditions, as identified by Adshead (1988), can provide stability within change and act as instances of “restored behavior” (Schechner 2013). Indeed, Bakka (2015) distinguishes between the dance concept (the guidelines that help people distinguish between different genres) and the dance realization (the actual moment of performance).
So, a dance form can abide to a specific concept, but at the same time, its realization can be unique and open to interpretations, allowing a practice to “remain stable without being frozen” (Bakka 2015, 152).
This paper investigates Egyptian raqs sharqi as a case study, to explore the idea of authenticity for this genre by the international community that practises it.
Egyptian Raqs sharqi is one of the dance genres commonly grouped within the umbrella term “belly dance”, and it literally means oriental dance (Raqs = dance, sharqi = of the east, i.e. oriental) in Arabic.
Egyptian Raqs sharqi is not currently included in UNESCO’s lists of ICH of humanity. However, for the purpose of this research, this dance genre has been deemed a suitable example to illustrate the potential issues that can arise from approaching dance from an ICH perspective, due not only to Raqs sharqi’s culturally defined roots but also due to its hybrid nature and international diffusion.
In this research, Egyptian Raqs sharqi is identified as a dance form that was born in the 1920s in Cairo, as a stage adaptation (for music halls, cabarets, and films) of local Egyptian dances such as baladi (local social dance), and the dance of the Awalim or Ghawazi (dancers who used to perform at ceremonies, festivals and public celebrations as described by Fraser  and Van Nieuwkerk ).
This stage adaptation was aimed at an audience of foreigners and upper-class Egyptian people who enjoyed the variety in performance style. As a result, dancers incorporated elements of western dance forms, such as ballet and ballroom into Raqs sharqi (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995).
The choice to focus on Egyptian raqs sharqi specifically, is not an attempt to dismiss new dance genres that have emerged from Middle Eastern dances, such as American tribal or Raqs Gothique (Frühauf 2009), as irrelevant or non-authentic.
Rather, it is an attempt to understand the concept (as defined by Bakka ) of a specific genre that is usually not recognized as separate from the other genres that are grouped today within the big “belly dance” umbrella term, which is not one big “syncretic genre” (Dox 1997, 53), but a variety of different genres.
In this article, the first section will focus on definitions of authenticity provided by UNESCO, to provide a starting point for the argument, and on the problems that are intrinsic to the idea of authenticity itself; the focus will then shift to the authenticity discourse in dance studies.
The conceptual framework on which this research is based and the research methods used will then be covered, before moving on to the section containing the data. In this part of the article, data from videos, texts, and interviews will be used to paint a picture of what authenticity means for Raqs sharqi practitioners worldwide today, whilst connecting their understanding with the history of the genre and its cultural and contextual roots.
Through this data, the main areas in which authenticity is expressed will be highlighted. The conclusion will re-engage with UNESCO’s idea of authenticity, positing that an updated understanding of authenticity for dance (and other forms of ICH) is certainly possible, provided it takes into consideration dance’s specific nature (embodied, transcultural, changeable, creative) and characteristics, which are different from the built heritage for which the concept of authenticity was originally proposed.
UNESCO and the Problem of Authenticity
The Convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage was ratified by UNESCO in 1972 and it defines cultural heritage as
“monuments . . . groups of buildings . . . sites . . . of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view”(Unesco 1972, 2)
The word authenticity was not present in the text of the 1972 Convention, but it was introduced by UNESCO in 1977 in a document called Issues arising in connection with the implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 1977, 8), which restricted the concept of authenticity to four components: “design, materials, workmanship and settings”.
This followed the spirit of the 1964 Venice Charter (ICOMOS 1964), which, according to Cameron and Inaba (2015, 31), focused on “tangible attributes”. However, as Cameron and Inaba report, it soon became clear that focusing only on tangible elements, even for architectonic and monumental heritage was problematic, due to the perishable nature of the materials used for buildings in some parts of the world.
Indeed, as Zhu (2015, 597) argues, Japanese and Chinese buildings have what he calls a “built-in obsolescence” as they are built with materials that decay and need to be replaced regularly, but the places in which the buildings are located always maintain a symbolic meaning.
These issues led to a long process, described by Cameron and Inaba (2015), which eventually led to the Nara Document on Authenticity (UNESCO 1994), which pre-dates the 2003 ICH Convention. Through the Nara Document on Authenticity, UNESCO recognised that different cultures have different ways of understanding authenticity for cultural heritage.
Article 13 of the Nara Document on Authenticity, states that sources 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”.
Authenticity is one of the conditions that a property must meet in order to be deemed of “outstanding universal value” by UNESCO, according to its Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 2005, 20).
As mentioned in the introduction, however, Bortolotto (2013) and Deacon and Smeets (2013) point out that the 2003 Convention does not include the term authenticity and that the Yamato Declaration (Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs and UNESCO 2004, para. 8) expressly states that authenticity is irrelevant for ICH. Before arguing that authenticity, albeit an adapted understanding of it, can still be relevant for ICH, it is worth discussing why UNESCO rejected this notion and the problematics that authenticity entails.
Bortolotto (2013) posits that UNESCO’s rejection of the notion of tradition was influenced by the debates on the political uses of folklore, which started with Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (1992 ) seminal publication The Invention of Tradition. Hobsbawm and Ranger (1992, 1 ) argue that traditions can be invented to support a specific worldview in the present, provided they show continuity “with a suitable historic past”.
Ketchell (2007, 29), paraphrasing Hobsbawm and Ranger and contesting the idea of authenticity states that “traditions are created in relation to the needs of the present and are therefore subject to social processes and relationships of power”. Indeed, for Handler (1986), authenticity is a modern cultural construct, driven by individualism, and leading to understanding cultures as discrete and separate entities that compete against each other.
Moreover, Johnson (2003, 3), in discussing the concept of black authenticity, warns against the dangers of authenticity as a concept that can be useful to empower minorities, but which has often resulted in a “political agenda that has excluded more voices than it has included”.
Similarly, Bendix (2009) posits that nationalist movements, since the Romantic era (in the nineteenth century), have always used folklore and the idea of authenticity to foster a sense of belonging and national identity. The reason why authenticity is problematic for Bendix (2009, 9) is that its existence implies that what is not authentic is fake, a spurious tradition, thus “continually upholding the fallacy that cultural purity rather than hybridity are the norm”.
Also, labeling something as authentic, according to Bendix (2009), leads to its commodification by giving its market value. Thus, it follows that authenticity is a discourse that reflects power imbalances. In the field of dance, for example, Purkayastha (2014, 55) posits that the innovative works of the Indian dance choreographer Uday Shankar were considered ‘inauthentic’ as they “defied the hegemonic tendencies of the classicism project of the Indian nationalists”.
The arguments put forward so far, according to which authenticity is a modern construct that leads to commodification and issues of power differentials, are important and commonly accepted today in the academic discourse.
Nevertheless, Bortolotto (2013) and Deacon and Smeets (2013) also make a compelling argument when they state that the idea of authenticity is still present, even if implicitly, in the 2003 Convention and that stakeholders still value authenticity. For instance, Bortolotto (2013) uses the example of the Mexican cuisine nomination, in which the term authenticity occurs nine times.
Bortolotto (2013), Margari (2016), Seeger (2015) and Deacon and Smeets (2013) highlight the discrepancy, in the 2003 Convention (UNESCO 2003), between the idea of ICH being constantly recreated and the terms ‘identity’ and ‘continuity’. Moreover, Deacon and Smeets (2013), draw attention to UNESCO’s warning about the danger of ‘decontextualization’ and ‘denaturalization’ in the Operational Directives (UNESCO 2005, para. 102), which contradicts UNESCO’s idea that authenticity is irrelevant for ICH.
Deacon and Smeets (2013, 140) suggest that communities should decide if authenticity is relevant and, if so, what is authentic with regards to a practice. Doing so, according to Deacon and Smeets (ibid.), would be compatible with the 2003 Convention (as ICH is recognized by groups, individuals, and communities) and with the “community-centered reading of authenticity in the Nara Document”.
Another characteristic of ICH is that it “is alive” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 53) and dynamic because, as stated in the 2003 Convention, and it is “transmitted from generation to generation [and] constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history” (UNESCO 2003, 2). As ICH is alive and transmitted across generations, it means that it is also likely to change and shift over time.
Thus, is there a way to reconcile change with identity and continuity, in particular insofar as authenticity is important for communities, and can the concept of authenticity as identified in the Nara Document be used for ICH?
Moreover, for dance (as well as other performing arts and physical cultures), there may be other elements that are relevant to authenticity, which the Nara Document, having been initially devised for built heritage, does not cover. This is what this paper will investigate through the case study of Egyptian Raqs sharqi. Before moving on to the research on Raqs sharqi, however, a brief discussion on the concept of authenticity in the field of dance is needed.
Authenticity in the Field of Dance Studies
According to Giurchescu (2001, 117), in the field of dance “authenticity is a romantic construction”, since in the nineteenth century, as Giurchescu and Torp argue (1991), folkloric dances in Europe were rediscovered as expressions of national identity.
At that time, there was an idealistic aspiration towards authenticity, as experts were trying to save “vanishing” dances whose authentic expression could only be found in small villages, away from what they believed was the corrupting influence of big cities.
Hence, Giurchescu and Torp posit (1991, 2), “in their search for “authentic folklore”, collectors rigorously excluded “new styles”, non-national or non-ethnic traits, together with all that which was marked by the “destructive” influence of town life”.
This static and conservative approach to dance in the nineteenth century can be considered the equivalent of an “essentialist paradigm” (Bodo 2012) in heritage which, according to Naguib (2013), has its roots in that same timeframe and was linked to ideas of nationhood and authenticity.
According to Buckland (2007, 7), this approach to the study of dance within a folk paradigm, in the second half of the twentieth century has been subjected to critique and review (particularly in North America and Western Europe), leading to an interrogation on how this folkloric approach was tied to politics and the “maintenance of power inequalities”. Similarly, Reed (1998, 512) stated that “political ideologies play a critical role in the selection of national dances . . . regulating purity and authenticity”.
Indeed, recent studies on dance raise the question of whose authenticity is being promoted and for what political aims. For example, O’Shea (1998, 52), in her investigation on the history of the Indian dance Bharata Natyam, highlights that the transmission of this dance form in the early twentieth century was connected to different styles and that each style questioned other styles’ authenticity, “by referring to different historical moments as the source of the dance form”.
In particular, O’Shea (ibid.) discusses how the Kalakshetra style, based on the reconstruction of an ancient pan-Indian dance (rather than being linked to local Tamil forms), was purified from any reference to sexuality. Moreover, it incorporated both Indian and Western values and traditions (such as Western ballet), thus “utilizing colonial categories to reconstruct Indian identity as a source of pride” (O’Shea 1998, 54).
Similarly, Pietrobruno (2014) highlights (through the analysis of YouTube videos) how the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony of Turkey is represented differently by UNESCO (that is guided by the Turkish government’s interpretation) and by local practitioners. In particular, Pietrobruno (2014) explains that the videos uploaded by users show that women, as well as men, are involved in this ceremony, thus counteracting the official narrative that this ceremony is only practiced by men.
In addition to political issues, with regards to dance, there are two aspects of authenticity that need consideration. One refers to the performance in the present of old choreographies and whether it is possible, or indeed necessary, to be true to the original. This aspect is mentioned by Thomas (2003, 135), who highlights the fact that dancers move differently according to the time in which they live as “dancing bodies and techniques change over time and what would be considered routine, everyday movement techniques for dancers from a former era may be utterly foreign to present-day dancers”.
Hence, Franko (2018) calls for a re-enactment of a dance piece, as opposed to a strict reconstruction of it, whereby re-enactment allows for a more creative reinterpretation and takes into account the physicality of dance and how dancers’ bodies are different, according to the historical context in which they live.
The other aspect of authenticity in dance refers to specific genres and how much a performance can innovate, or deviate from the accepted parameters of a genre, in order to be still considered as a genuine representation of that genre.
This research on Egyptian Raqs sharqi focuses only on this aspect of authenticity as, although choreography in this genre is used for group performances and for teaching purposes, the focus is mainly on improvisation.
This research on Egyptian raqs sharqi is based on a conceptual framework for dance heritage (Lo Iacono and Brown, 2016), which considers this type of heritage as a holistic combination of tangible and intangible elements, which cannot be separated.
Hence, a “living” rather than simply “intangible” heritage (as opposed to tangible), in which a combination of in/tangible artifacts, cultural spaces, embodied people with their feelings, traditions and tastes combine and continuously influence and shape each other. According to this framework, living cultural heritage is (Lo Iacono and Brow 2016, 100):
Embodied by individuals, in connection with the artifacts they produce and use and the environment they interact with and as expressed through practices, activities, and performances.
Living cultural heritage is also constituted by socially and culturally inﬂuenced traditions and conventions, as well as by the feelings and emotions of people and the way they relate to this heritage, including taste and perceptions. Heritage and human beings are indissolubly connected and continuously shape each other in an open-ended ﬂuid dialogue.
This model (underpinned by the post-dualist theories of Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu and Giddens) is based on a holistic structure that overcomes the artificial divisions of tangible and intangible, body and mind, subjectivity and objectivity and structure and agency.
Moreover, a framework of authenticity for dance should take into account the changeable and fluid nature of dance, hence it should be based on a dialogical paradigm of heritage, as described by Bodo (2012).
A dialogical paradigm sees heritage as a dynamic entity, made of cultural objects, both material and immaterial, which should not only be transmitted but also renegotiated, reconstructed and made available for everyone to share in a social setting.
If authenticity, understood in terms of adherence to traditions, is approached from a heritage paradigm perspective, it can be argued that there is a spectrum in which essentialist and dialogical paradigms occupy the two extremes.
Some genres gravitate towards a more essentialist approach to authenticity, such as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in the county of Staffordshire and the Britannia Coco-Nut dance of Bacup, in the Rossendale Valley of Lancashire, both in the UK, studied by Buckland (2001), which have preserved as closely as possible traditions dating back hundreds of years. Closer to the opposite extreme it is possible to situate, for example, post-modern dance, which is very open to experimentation (Daly et al. 1992).
An understanding of authenticity that fits within a dialogical paradigm, is ‘fluid authenticity’ defined by Lowthorp (2015, 33) (referring to the way in which the Indian dance genre kutiyattam has changed overtime) as “a dynamic safeguarding based on a concept of art as inherently changing and adapting to contemporary audiences”.
The balance between change and continuity can be dealt with using Bakka’s (2015, 151) distinction between the realization of dance, which is the act of performing a specific dance, and its concept, meaning the “base of skills, knowledge, and understanding” that a dancer draws upon.
Bakka (2015, 152) suggests that a dance genre can be safeguarded by recording and archiving many realizations of a genre, to be used as “inspiration and knowledge base”, rather than as a rigid set of instructions. This procedure, according to Bakka (ibid.), would allow for continuity, whilst avoiding the ‘freezing’ of ICH.
Another important aspect to consider within an authenticity discourse for dance heritage, is the transcultural nature of dance, even when a genre retains a strong connection to a specific geographical location recognised as its place of origin, as highlighted by Loiacono and Fallon (2018).
Theoretically, the concept adopted for this research is Welsch’s (1999) transculturality, which sees cultures as interconnected webs, rather than separated bubbles. Cultural webs, according to Welsch (1999, 203), arise “from transcultural permeations”, with every culture including a high degree of internal differentiation and hybridism. Transculturality includes hybridism and cosmopolitanism, as Welsch (1999, 205) states:
Transcultural identities comprehend a cosmopolitan side, but also a side of local affiliation . . . the local side can today still be determined by ethnic belonging or the community in which one grew up. But it doesn’t have to be. People can make their own choice with respect to their affiliations.
This phenomenon was identified by Appadurai (1990, 296) as global cultural flows, which are “navigated by agents who both experience and constitute larger formations”. In the field of dance, Fensham and Kelada (2012, 370) identify “transnational cultural flows” in “a young man from Calcutta who is the reigning Indian salsa champion, an Hawaiian hip-hop dancer and an Aboriginal Zorba [who] represent . . . transcultural bodies”.
This research aims to show how the tangible and intangible elements of heritage contribute to the authenticity discourse constructed by an international community of Egyptian raqs sharqi practitioners in the twenty-first century.
Research and Data Collection Methods
A mix of different methods was employed, to capture the complexity of dance as a form of living, holistic heritage.
Data on Egyptian Raqs sharqi were gathered from a combination of interviews and visual and textual material provided by sources such as:
- online videos of Egyptian Raqs sharqi and practitioner-focused books
- online magazines
- and websites.
The sampling pool draws on an international community of practitioners of Egyptian Raqs sharqi (teachers and dancers who have been invested in this dance form for a time span ranging from 10 to 50 years).
Because of the international diffusion of Egyptian Raqs sharqi, this research focuses on its transcultural dimension and on how this dance is transmitted internationally and perceived outside of its country of origin.
As discussed earlier in this paper, authenticity is tied with issues of power and commodification. Thus, it is never straightforward to assess who has the right to claim if a version of a practice is authentic or not, particularly for something like dance that cannot be bordered within a geographical location (Loiacono and Fallon, 2018).
As Desmond (1993) argues, the notion of cultural appropriation in dance involves changes in performance style and meaning, as well as the interaction between power differentials and ideology, so hybridism or syncretism can better reflect this complexity.
Hence, this paper only deals with a construct of authenticity as it is relevant to and experienced by an international community of expert practitioners, rather than claiming to uncover the only possible version of authenticity for Egyptian Raqs sharqi.
The semi-structured interviews involved 10 participants, some interviewed in person and others through the medium of Skype video calls (Lo Iacono et al. 2016).
The participants were from different locations (including Europe and the US) and they were all dancers and dance teachers with at least ten years’ experience in Egyptian Raqs sharqi.
Two of them have been professional Raqs sharqi dancers in Cairo for over ten years; nine of them have written articles, books and/or blogs about this dance genre; all of them have been to Egypt for dance training and research and one of them does not teach but has been a student of this dance form for a long time.
The participants were all women because of the difficulty of finding male practitioners of Egyptian Raqs sharqi to interview. Male practitioners exist but they are few and were not available to be interviewed at the time when this research was carried out. The interviews provided a more personal account of practitioners’ involvement in Raqs sharqi.
Textual data sources provided important information on the views held by the international community of committed practitioners on Egyptian raqs sharqi, including its history, interpretations, movements and changes over time.
In this respect, this paper embraces what Reisinger and Steiner (2006, 66) define as a constructivist position, according to which the basis of authenticity is “social or personal” and, as Zhu (2015, 596) posits,
“authenticity is no longer a property inherit in an object, but a projection from beliefs, context, ideology or even imagination”.Zhu (2015, 596)
Moreover, people are central in the ICH discourse as they are the repository of this type of heritage, hence, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett posits (2004, 58) “people are not only objects of cultural preservation but also subjects”.
Thus, in this research, the data gathered through texts and interviews give a voice to a community of practitioners in the field who, as already identified by Stovel (2008), Zhu (2015), Pietrobruno (2014) and Diettrich (2015), should be involved in debates about authenticity in heritage.
The online element was invaluable in this research, because Egyptian raqs sharqi is practised globally and its practitioners make considerable use of online resources such as websites, blogs, video sharing sites and social media in order to connect with each other and to share experiences, knowledge and opinions on this dance form.
The blogs, websites pages, DVDs, and books analyzed were written by practitioners who have been to Egypt several times and who have been studying, researching, and writing about this dance form for decades.
Textual data and interviews highlighted a discourse around authenticity, which could not be evinced from the videos alone. The online videos of Egyptian raqs sharqi performances (of which 1,000 were analysed by the researcher), were found on YouTube and Vimeo.
They included dance scenes from old Egyptian movies, well as live performances, and they dated from as far back as the 1930s. The dancers in the videos were Egyptian (most of them) or had strong connections with Egypt (for example performed there in a professional capacity).
The videos were analyzed to better understand the key signature movements of the dance and how they changed over time. The quality of the movement was analyzed using Laban analysis principles.
Other elements that could be gathered from the videos, such as costumes, props, performance settings, and individual dancers’ embodiment and expression of this dance were also analyzed by the researcher.
The dancers in the videos had to be famous worldwide between raqs sharqi practitioners, as they would be the most likely to have influenced other dancers across generations and geographical locations. The most famous and influential dancers were chosen by:
- Using the researcher’s knowledge, having being involved in raqs sharqi for 15 years.
- Researching websites about raqs sharqi to see which dancers’ names appeared more frequently.
- Using the Google AdWords Keyword planner tool to assess which, out of the dancers identified, were the most searched for online. This tool allows the user to see how many times, on average every month, a keyword has been entered in Google searches. The researcher set the options to ‘all languages’ and ‘all countries’ to have an idea of dancers’ popularity globally. The results of this search are not necessarily significant on their own, but, if triangulated with data from interviews and from raqs sharqi written sources, can be significant (indeed, the dancers who were most frequently mentioned during the interviews, are also in the top 10 in this search).
The next step was to search these fifty-four dancers’ names online (using Google, YouTube and Vimeo) to find their videos.
As videos were found and as another online material about Raqs sharqi was analyzed, though, new directions emerged for the video research. Thus, dancers who were not initially in the list of 54 were added and some of the initial 54 dancers were not included in the analysis, as it became clearer which dancers would be more or less relevant as the research progressed.
Finally, sampling for the videos was also influenced by the way in which Google and YouTube (which belongs to Google) work. As Pietrobruno (2014) notes, YouTube runs algorithms that interact with users, as they upload videos, add tags, as they select to ‘like’ videos and post comments, in a recursive process.
These algorithms influence the visibility of videos and will have influenced the ways in which YouTube responded to the researcher’s queries.
In the section that follows, the case study of Egyptian raqs sharqi will be presented and organised under a series of themes that emerged through the research.
The data includes quotations from participants’ interviews (identified as Participant 1, 2 etc.) and texts (found both in print and online), as well as references to videos.
Egyptian Raqs Sharqi Case Study
Tradition vs Change and Raqs Sharqi Beginnings
This section starts with a history of Egyptian raqs sharqi from the first half of the twentieth century, to position the historical roots of the current discourse on authenticity for this dance genre.
Raqs sharqi originated in Cairo in the 1920s and it was hybrid (transcultural) since its inception. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Cairo was a very cosmopolitan city in which culturally hybrid spaces could be found.
Referring to the Gezira Palace Hotel in Cairo (a hybrid architecture designed by architects from different countries), Naguib (2008, 473) defines such places as:
“contact zones . . . interactive transient spaces with flexible boundaries, which provide fertile grounds for various degrees of cultural translations and borrowings”.Naguib (2008, 473)
Similarly, salas (a type of nightclubs), where Raqs Sharqi was performed for the first time, can be considered contact zones for performing arts.
Van Niewkerk (1995, 43) reports that, at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century, one of the first Awalim (educated women who performed at people’s homes by singing and playing instruments and sometimes dancing, but only for women) to open a nightclub in Cairo was Shafîʾa il-Ibṭiyya).
Another famous entertainer to open her own club was Badia Masabni. Many dancers who worked in her establishment went on to star in Egyptian movies in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s (including the two most famous ones, Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal).
These clubs were aimed at a high-class clientele that included upper-class Egyptians as well as foreigners (Shay and Sellers-Young 2005, 19–20). They were a cosmopolitan environment, in which traditional Middle Eastern dances, normally performed socially at festivities and celebrations, were adapted to the stage and to the international tastes of its audience, by incorporating elements from foreign dance forms, such as ballet and ballroom dance, to the local traditions.
Badia Masabni herself commented in an interview now available online how she changed the dance and how new transcultural influences were brought into it (Adum n.d., pt. Second Segment-Family), by saying:
“I made variations in the dance — I added Latin, Turkish and Persian dance to it” and, with regards to the music (ibid), “I’m the one who mixed Arabic music with foreign music. . . . We added the piano and the contrabass, and the flute, the clarinet and the accordion, all together”.(Badia Masabni)
Regarding the costumes, Badia recalls (Adum n.d., pt. Second Segment-European Influence) that she traveled to Europe, visited music halls and: “I bought set decorations and costumes from them . . . and gave them to my artists and my dancers”.
Even the artists in the Salas were international, as Tahia recalls in an interview with Beata and Horacio Cifuentes (1999, para. 5), talking about Badia Masabni’s nightclub, “I started with a group. . . . It was with four girls . . . two Italian girls, an English one and one Egyptian, myself”. Clearly, Raqs Sharqi was born in a transcultural setting and was created by cosmopolitan dancers.
The local roots of Raqs sharqi are mainly in what is called Baladi dance. Baladi in Egypt literally means of the country, hence local. However, Baladi also refers to “authentic or working class”. Early (1992, 54) defines the concept of Baladi thus:
Historically “baladi” indicated the locals, the Egyptians . . . Through time, baladi has come to connote the residents and life of urban quarters such as Bulaq Abu ‘Ala. It is a . . . term that can roughly be translated “traditional” but which also retains a rich infusion of the local and authentic.
Because of its class connotations, the term baladi (working class) is often used as an opposite to the term afrangi (westernised upper class). Early (ibid, p. 26) explains that in Egyptian society “the baladi:afrangi relation is one of the insider and the outsider, of the have-nots and the haves, of the pragmatic and the ideal”.
Baladi, as Lorius (1996, 289) mentions, also has moral connotations, with Baladi people being considered proud, hospitable, earthy and Baladi women strong, confident, and streetwise.
These feelings are reflected in the Baladi dance, which is improvised and linked to a type of music that Lorius (ibid, p. 288), drawing on Suraya Hilal’s teachings, describes as “an improvisational urban genre using the accordion, violin and wind instruments, which developed while Egypt was industrializing and under colonial rule”.
Raqs sharqi is often considered the performance form of Baladi, as the dancer Morocco states (Varga Dinicu 2013, 97), “the social, home version is Raqs Beledi. Raqs Sharqi usually (but not always) means the performance form”.
In the section about embodied attitude, it will be explained in more detail how the dialectic between Afrangi and Baladi is expressed in Raqs sharqi, given that this dance, rooted in Baladi, was performed for an Afrangi audience.
Another local root of raqs sharqi was the dance of the Ghawazee (singular ghaziya), who, as Morocco (Varga Dinicu 2013, 43) explains, are “Sinti “Gypsy”.
Van Nieuwkerk (1995, 26–27) tells us that they danced unveiled in the streets, outside coffee houses, during saint’s day celebrations. Ward (2013) compiled a list of what the movements of the first dances performed in night clubs (the proto-raqs sharqi), must have been like until at least the 1920s, based on travellers’ accounts.
She explains that the initial Raqs sharqi dance did not seem very different from the dance performed by the Ghawazee, except for some innovations in the use of the arms and space, that is, it was performed solo, with minimal footwork and torso isolations and the dancers, who sometimes played finger cymbals, were accompanied by traditional musicians and a singer.
In the 1930s though, the dancers in the Salas used more floor space, varied footwork, and different arm positions; the main dancer was backed by a line of chorus dancers; musical ensembles accompanying the dance were much bigger with a mix of traditional and Western musical instruments.
Ward’s (2013) assertions regarding raqs sharqi in the 1930s are illustrated by a promotional video for Badia Masani’s nightclub from 1934 (lynetteserpent 2009). The video shows a group of dancers, wearing the typical raqs sharqi costume with bra and skirt (bedlah), dancing on stage around Badia Masabni, who sings and plays finger cymbals. The musicians are not visible, but the music is produced by an orchestra that plays a variety of instruments.
The first elements in raqs sharqi authenticity discourse can already be identified in the fact that the dances at the root of raqs sharqi were social and performed during celebrations and festivities.
This social and celebratory origin still influences the raqs sharqi authenticity discourse today, and this helps to explain why spontaneity and improvisation is preferred by the community researched for this article over choreography, at least for solo performances, and why the interaction with the audience is considered so important.
Because of its baladi and Ghawazee roots, raqs sharqi has never completely lost its focus towards the dancer/audience interaction which still constitutes part of its authenticity discourse.
This observation is borne out in the video data, as well as interviews and textual data. For example, in an interview (Moawad 1968, para. 31), the Egyptian dancer Samia Gamal declared: “The happiest moments of my life have been when I could see my audience face to face while dancing for them”.
Participant 9, who danced professionally in Egypt (always with a live band) for over 10 years, stated: “There’s the interaction between the dancer and her band, but also between the dancer and the audience and these three need to be in sync”.
Equally, in addition to performing in salas, raqs sharqi dancers performed at weddings and private celebrations and Badia Masabni recalls that (Adum n.d., pt. Fourth Segment-Performing on the Road) she attended many wedding celebrations, “at least four to five thousand between Alexandria and El Said and Mansoura” with her troupe.
By watching and analysing videos of Egyptian raqs sharqi from the last 80 years, it is visible that each dancer has her own style and that changes have happened in terms of costumes, movements and interpretation.
Many raqs sharqi dancers, such as the contemporary Egyptian Dina, are innovators and appreciate change. For example, Dina, talking about her admiration for the innovation of Samia Gamal, as opposed to the more traditional style of Tahia Carioca, explains (Talaat and Guibal 2011, 55) “Tahia danced in an old fashioned way, as if her movements were limited by an invisible circle. Samia, she made space explode”.
However, by referring to two dancers from an older generation and acknowledging them, Dina connects herself with a tradition that precedes her. Hence, it would appear that there is a dialectic between traditions and change embedded within the dance culture of raqs sharqi itself.
Because of the changing and hybrid nature of Raqs sharqi, the participants found it hard to express what authenticity meant for them. For example, Participant 1 stated:
Whoever you talk to has a slightly different idea of what raqs sharqi is . . . I think that changes. I think fashions change. So I think you have to say, that was authentic for the 1970s or that was authentic for the 1980s or this is authentic because it’s Fifi Abdou style.
You know, you copy a particular dancer and you think: is that authentic? But that dancer herself has taken that dance form and put her own stamp on it. So I think authenticity is a very difficult thing to define.
The changing nature of dance makes it challenging to identify what counts as authentic for a community of practitioners and, indeed, if authenticity is valued at all. Dance has always been subject to change and hybridity. Indeed, as Kealiinohomoku (1970, 35) points out, “all dances are subject to change and development no matter how convenient we may find it to dismiss some form as practically unchanged for 2,000 years”.
However, in spite of the changes, it should be possible to identify some constants or following Schechner (2013, 29), “restored behaviour” in a dance genre, or what Bakka (2015) defines as its “concept”. According to Adshead (1988, 78)
To a great extent . . . genres and styles place constraints upon, and in some cases actually specify, the nature and range of the material of the dance and the relevant kinds of techniques for creating, performing and presenting it.
Adshead (ibid.) adds though that genres allow considerable freedom and fluidity, so that each choreographer and dancer can have an individual style; this allows dance performances to be unique and this fluidity can extend to the point at which a new genre is born out of an old tradition. Some practitioners feel the need to identify some boundaries. For example, according to Participant 2:
You can innovate, like for example, the tribal fusion belly dancing element, in the United States. I really like tribal dance, . . . but it . . . could not be called raqs sharqi. It’s called something else.
Diana Esposito (who dances professionally in Egypt), referring not to established genres such as American tribal, but rather to types of fusion that lack clarity and mastery of the dances being fused, states that there is a (2014, para. 9) “growing trend of disregard for Middle Eastern culture within the international belly dance community”.
Moreover, she argues, (2012c, para. 15) “belly dance is inextricably linked to Arabic language and culture. One really does have to have some level of familiarity with the culture to dance properly”. What ‘dancing properly’ exactly means is debatable and such assertion raises the question of who decides what ‘proper’ Egyptian Raqs sharqi is.
Nevertheless, it shows that a certain community has identified what, for them, is ‘proper’ Egyptian Raqs sharqi, and this matters to them. What follows will deal with the different areas and layers of dance in which an authenticity discourse can be identified, through the tangible and intangible elements that compose the dance.
The first area in which the authenticity discourse is located is the tangible/intangible domain of the body and its dispositions, which, Bourdieu (1977, p. 15) argues, are durably “embedded in the agents’ very bodies in the form of mental dispositions . . . and also . . . in . . . ways of standing, sitting, looking, speaking, or walking”.
Non-Egyptian dancers who have been to Egypt, explain how the everyday embodied dispositions of Egyptian people are often reflected in the dance. For example, Participant 9 told me that observing people in Egypt was a vital lesson for her:
Every time I went, even if I didn’t watch a dancer, even if I didn’t have a lesson, in the week I was there, I still felt I came back a much better dancer. And that’s because even just watching the way the women speak to each other, the way they sit, the way they walk, the way the hold themselves, the way they talk with their hands. . . . And when you start putting that into your dance, then you understand where a lot of the dance movements have come from.
From watching raqs sharqi videos and from the discourse based on textual analysis and interviews, the following dispositions or attitudes emerge: joy; playfulness; sensuality; flirting; coyness; power; strength; sexiness or sensuality; elegance; simplicity; relaxation; softness and minimalism (i.e. small, internal movements).
From the analysis of the videos, all or most of these feelings can be observed in every dancer, in particular Egyptian dancers, from the origins of raqs sharqi to the early twenty-first century. Some dancers may express more certain attitudes rather than others, but most of these attitudes are discernible in all.
For example, in the 1930s/50s, Tahia Carioca’s style was grounded and minimalist; Samia Gamal’s was more lifted and she traveled more in space while Hagar Hamdi was languid and relaxed. In the 1970s, Soheir Zaki was soft and minimalist, coy and emotionally powerful at the same time and Nagwa Fouad was soft but very energetic and powerful.
In the 1980s, Fifi Abdou was grounded, powerful, strong but also very playful and sensual, and Lucy was lifted and elegant, reminiscent of Samia Gamal. More recently, Dina is joyful, strong and sensual, while Randa Kamel is extremely powerful and there is no softness in her dance, she is not coy or flirty, but she expresses joy, sensuality, and playfulness nevertheless.
The contrast between sensuality and coyness expressed in a fun and joyful way, is connected to the social roots of Egyptian raqs sharqi. Adra (2005) explains that, in traditional Arab cultures, people are not encouraged to express their individuality in public, where they are supposed to be reserved.
However, at home and between close friends, social rules are relaxed. Adra (2005, 42) observes that “when the dancer feigns modesty by covering her eyes with the back of her hand while moving her pelvis, she is making a good-humored meta-statement about this dance that is anything but modest”. Also, the Baladi origins of Raqs sharqi explain some of what can be considered its authentic embodied dispositions. For example, Participant 9 observed that:
Baladi is soulful, is introspective but it’s also sensual and cheeky and flirty and fun and strong. Baladi is all of these things. And if you dance oriental with that essence, baladi essence, then that’s very authentic.
This essence for Participant 9 derives from the way people (particularly women) in Egypt move in everyday life: “the way the women would flirt. So cute and they would sit and, even if they were wearing a niqab, the headscarf, they would sit and they would fiddle with it and play with it, pull it over one shoulder, take it back in really quite a coquettish, flirty way”.
Participant 8 says that for her authentic raqs sharqi is “sensual. Feminine, sometimes playful, sometimes bold, confident, sometimes casual, individualistic”. Hossam Ramzy (n.d., para. 2), a famous Egyptian musician, also uses the word playful when talking about the 1930s/’40s dancer Hagar Hamdi whose dancing was “so authentically Egyptian, playful, fully integrating the music, rhythm and artistic Egyptian styles together”.
Relaxation comes up often in the discourse around Egyptian raqs sharqi. Indeed, Fahmy (1987, 67), talking about how Mahmoud Reda (who, from the early days of raqs sharqi until today, has been very influential in the field of raqs sharqi in and outside of Egypt) codified some elements of raqs sharqi for his stage adaptations, stresses that “the relaxed attitude that is particular to this genre” was maintained.
Esposito advises practitioners to (2015, para. 18) “relax. . . . Bigger and faster isn’t necessarily better.” An Egyptian reader commented on one of Diana Esposito’s (2012b) blog posts:
As an Egyptian . . . I think the elusive “feeling” Egyptian dancers exude is actually physical sloppiness and sluggy body movement, as oppose to the more athletic approach of foreign dancers. Yet, despite this I still respond more to Egyptian belly dancing, and I figured out it has everything to do with our shared heritage.
Participant 4 states that this feeling of relaxation is evident in the way Dina dances: “she has that relaxed quality and she’s kind of floating over, floating on the music a little bit”. Connected with the feeling of relaxation is the idea that the authentic Egyptian oriental style is soft and the movements are small.
Participant 5, for example, told me that Soheir Zaki is one of her favourite dancers and: “I really, really liked the softness of her dance. And very, very, minimal dance that she does”. Participant 6 also mentioned simplicity with regards to the essence of Egyptian raqs sharqi:
A sense of essence: you do not need tricks or flashy props to express the message or feeling . . . And juiciness. The lush, strong, sinuous and relaxed, well-centred movement.
The idea of movements being small and contained is important in raqs sharqi and is also put across by Esposito (Esposito 2015, para. 7), who states that:
The way to be loud when belly dancing . . . is by being subtle. By keeping your movements small, internal, meaningful, soft, and in harmony with the music.
Esposito also argues that being trained in different forms of physical exercise before learning raqs sharqi can affect the way in which non-Egyptian dancers move. She compares this embodied attitude to accents when speaking a foreign language. She recalls (2012a, para. 7):
When I first started taking belly dance classes in New York . . . I was doing all the movements correctly, but the way I was doing them wasn’t very Middle Eastern, let alone Egyptian. My arms, which I held completely straight, were more suited for traffic directing than belly dancing.
My isolations were so huge, perfect, and violent that they looked more like hip-hop than like belly dance. Granted, I did have a bit of a hip-hop/jazz background, so that was the “accent” with which I was speaking the language of Egyptian dance. I’ve since learned to soften up and make my movements smaller . . . And I’ve learned that my isolations don’t have to be so perfect to the point of looking robotic.
Esposito’s comments refer to her experience of dancing professionally in Egypt for several years and, as such, they are subjective. However, some of the elements she highlights recur in the international community discourse. Some of this research’s participants also commented on needing to get rid of a physical accent or an acquired attitude when learning raqs sharqi. For example, Participant 7 said:
Having done ballet for so long . . . I really struggled with and probably do still struggle with the connection with the earth. Because with ballet . . . your aim is to get up above it as much as possible. Whereas, with raqs sharqi, it’s completely the opposite.
Participant 3, who trained in ballet for many years, said that this made her rigid and, when she learnt raqs sharqi: “I got rid of stiffness and rigidity and I got rid of the mentality that dealt with effort and pain. An association between results and pain”.
In spite of being considered grounded and gravity oriented, another one of the qualities of raqs sharqi includes elegance. Indeed, for Nimeera (n.d., paras. 8, 9) “Souhair Zaki was a very sweet and elegant dancer”. Samia Gamal was also considered elegant and, as Shay and Sellers-Young (2003, 20–21) posit, she: ”borrowed from ballet and American musicals to add expressive hand and body gestures. . . . Her make-up, hair style and costuming identified her as a sophisticated, modern woman”. Lucy’s style is also, as El Safy (1993, para. 4) points out, “delicate, refined and intricate”.
Although the roots of raqs sharqi are in baladi and ghawazee dance (which are grounded), the raqs sharqi popularised in twentieth century Egyptian films, is a hybrid dance, first performed to entertain the cosmopolitan elites in Cairo and influenced by ballet. Hence, elegance is also part of its disposition. Irene, mentioning a workshop with Egyptian master teacher Raqia Hassan, states that “she made me see that it would be possible to be grounded and elegantly elevated at the same time”.
Finally, one disposition of Egyptian raqs sharqi, stressed by practitioners, and that can be observed in videos, is power, which can be reconnected to it baladi roots. A dancer considered particularly powerful and having great presence is Fifi Abdou. Participant 3 stated about her: “Some dancers embody a specific style. Fifi Abdou’s baladi”. Other practitioners interviewed for this research express quite similar opinions about Fifi:
From Fifi Abdou [I got] the power, the strength, the ‘I don’t care what anyone else thinks, this is me, take it or leave it’. (Participant 9)
She’s very earthy and does very little, but everybody gets drawn, you just have to look at her face and you are there with her. (Participant 10)
You can’t help watching her, she is pretty mesmeric, isn’t she? (Participant 7)
I like Fifi because . . . she is quite confident and relaxed at the same time. (Participant 1)
Indeed, El-Messiri (1978, 90–94) describes a baladi woman as somebody who is confident, down to earth, quick witted, hard-working and not afraid of standing up to men who try to molest her. Of course, not all baladi women in real life must correspond to this description, as not all will be confident and strong; this is only a construct around an ideal type.
This ideal type of feminine yet powerful woman though resonates with non-Egyptian women in the international Raqs sharqi community. For instance, Francesca Sullivan (Sullivan and Farouk 2006, sec. 03:17) stated (referring to dancers such as Nagwa Fouad, Mona Said, and Fifi Abdou) that “these dancers appeared powerful women, exuding a strong sense of self, belonging in their bodies and, at the same time, clearly enjoying themselves”.
This idea of women’s empowerment is one of the elements that first attracted American women towards learning bellydance in the 1960s and 70s. Middle Eastern dances had become popular in the USA (particularly in big cities) thanks to the diaspora of people from Middle Eastern countries, who opened restaurants that featured traditional music and dances.
As Americans started to learn Middle Eastern dances, first in these restaurants and then in classes organized by the dancers who had first learned by dancing in the restaurants, they found bellydance to be empowering. This kind of women’s empowerment was based on American women using orientalist imagery, which restaurant owners capitalized on in order to attract more clients (Sellers-Young 2016). This idea of empowerment has influenced the international belly dance (including Egyptian raqs sharqi) discourse ever since.
Deagon, for instance, argues (n.d., para. 9) that, during the 1960s and 70s, “belly dance . . . encouraged self-expression . . . and it encouraged taking center stage”.
Feelings, Emotions and Connection with the Audience
Feelings and emotions are intangible elements, which are expressed in a tangible way through social agents’ bodies during performance. As Burkitt (2014, 7) posits, “feelings and emotions . . . result in patterns of activity that can become dispositions”.
Emotions, and the way they are transmitted to the audience, seem to be of paramount importance in the international raqs sharqi discourse. In Arabic there is a word, also used in the field of the performing arts, which is tarab, meaning ecstasy, transcendence or enchantment.
With regard to music and dance, music creates emotions, which the dancer feels and expresses and transmits to the audience. Bordelon (2013, 45) expresses the idea of Tarab as a shared feeling expressed in such a way that “the audience members can identify with the dancer and thereby access the music in an entirely unique, physical fashion”.
As Randa once stated (Senkovich 2008, vol. 1, sec. Interview): “I don’t want anyone in the audience not feeling my moves. Everyone watching must be pulled into my dance”.
Moreover, Samia Gamal once said that she preferred to dance in a night club rather than on stage (Sami n.d., sec. 6) “because I am closer to the audience and I live with them” and Tito said: “when people receive me with love I give the most of myself” (Beltran 2014, sec. 4:00).
This feeling, however, is not achieved by acting but by being true to oneself on stage and connecting with the emotional feeling of the music and the lyrics of the songs, if there are any. Indeed, Raqia Hassan (Sullivan 2002, para. 20) remarks that:
Sohair Zaki epitomizes the ‘natural’ dancer. Her appeal was in her simplicity: she translated the music precisely and naturally, without excess or flamboyance.
As Egyptian raqs sharqi is traditionally largely based on improvisation rather than choreography, spontaneity of expression is also highly valued by many practitioners. Randa often points out the importance of feeling and dancing from the heart. For example, in an interview, she said (Beltran 2010): “When I am dancing I never do choreography . . . I dance from my heart”.
Participant 5 comments: “the real core of raqs sharqi is divided between improvisation, so having a very big vocabulary of movements and being able to just pick whatever you need, and the ability to be vulnerable and yourself on stage . . . to express, your feelings through the movements of the dance”. Esposito observes that (2015, para. 8) “this is a very personal dance” and you should “be yourself” (ibid, para 18). Moreover, she states (2012c, para. 16): “the reason I love Egyptian style is because I find it extremely rich in technique, expression and emotion”.
According to Participant 3 (based on her experience of dancing for Egyptian audiences), “for Egyptians, I think, more than for any other audience, emotion is very important. This is the first thing. It’s not about you showing off how you can move . . . share your emotion, honest, emotion, not acting. This is something Egyptian audiences appreciate, very much”.
Feelings and emotions are not only important in Egyptian raqs sharqi, but also in other dance genres and performing arts, as a form of authenticity. For example, Daniel (1996) points out that dance performances, such as rumba in Cuba and voudou dance in Haiti, can still be authentic, even if performed in a different setting from the one in which they traditionally took place, because the feeling is authentic.
Voudou dance performances still retain their authenticity in the mental disposition of the performers who, sometimes, manage to achieve a state of trance even whilst performing for tourists. In Cuban rumba, according to Daniel, authenticity is achieved during the sabados de la rumba (events organized by the Cuban government), in which performers invite tourists to dance with them. Both tourists and dancers enter a liminal world in which boundaries disappear and everybody enjoys dancing, hence what is authentic are the feelings of celebration and enjoyment.
Hashimoto (2003, 226), with regards to the Japanese performing art of Hana-Taue, locates authenticity “in practitioners’ subjectivity, and in the creativity with which they adapt to new contexts”.
An element that is connected with emotions for raqs sharqi, is music. Soheir Zaki, for instance, was very famous for being “intuitively musically responsive” (El Safy 1993, para. 4) and having a great ear for music, so much so that she has been quoted for saying (Sullivan 2002, para. 14): “If someone played a wrong note [in my orchestra], I would hear who it was even though I had my back to him”.
The music in raqs sharqi is so important, that most non-Egyptians who move to Cairo to dance professionally do it to have the opportunity to dance to live music, as there are few musicians outside of Egypt who can play this music well. Esposito (2011, paras. 8, 9) in her blog states:
Nothing compares to the joy I get from performing to a large band in front of an appreciative audience. . . . I love creating my entire show from choosing musicians to choreographing dances and everything in between.
Lorna Gow (2006, para. 12), when writing about the good things of working in Egypt, points out that “it’s lovely working with musicians”. Dunya (Sullivan and Farouk 2006, secs. 11:03, 35:55), from Finland, remarks:
I wanted to come to dance here because it’s great, it’s great possibility to work, to learn about dancing, about the culture, about the people, dancing with a band, because in Finland, with have some musicians but it’s not the same.
Participant 3 argues that in Egypt “you still have the best musicians. And the essence comes from the music, you cannot have that language without the music that corresponds to it”. Talking about the importance of the music in shaping a genre, Participant 4 mentioned that Egyptian raqs sharqi, as opposed to Turkish oriental dance:
Is relaxed and it’s engaged with the music and it’s there for the audience, but there is a primary level of relaxed more syrupy engagement in the music. . . . when you see, even somebody like Randa Kamel. Who dances very fast and, you know, in a way that’s very big, that appeals to westerners and she still has a feeling for the music. . . . This grounded quality and this quality of enjoyment and this very loving relationship with the audience seem to me to be kind of hallmarks of Egyptian style.
From the author’s analysis of more than 1,000 online videos of Egyptian raqs sharqi the conclusion is that, in terms of movements, the core vocabulary is quite limited. The variety comes from many variations of the same basic movements (variations which Kaeppler (1972, 2001) calles ‘allokines’) and from the expressivity of the individual dancers.
Indeed, Ibrahim Akef (Naima Akef’s cousin, who choreographed group numbers for raqs sharqi from the time of Badia Masabni and who later went on teaching generations of dancers, including Dina) talking to Chamas (2009, para. 12) “identified “shimmies”, undulating movements . . . circles and “eights”, as well as various hip thrusts and drops as being the original “Sharqi” or oriental movements”. As Participant 10 commented with regards to authenticity:
I think the basic thing with Egyptian is they do these hip drops which are swerves, they do shimmies and they do shoulder shimmies. And they do figures of eight, and I found, with the women that I’ve met that, apart from them having listening to the music and feeling it and feeling the phrasing of it, that’s the moves that they do, so I think that’s the authentic Egyptian that’s developed down from mother to daughter and everything else is being kind of the flourishes and the embellishments that have gone on top and changed over the years.
Movements characteristic of a dance genre can be considered a type of what, for performances, Schechner (2013, 29), identifies as “restored behaviour”, which are “physical, verbal, or virtual actions that are not-for-the-first-time; that are prepared or rehearsed”. Schechner postulates that the uniqueness of each performance is due to the context in which it takes place, the way in which the parts are combined and performed and the reception from the audience.
Costumes, Artefacts and Other Visual Elements
Artefacts are tangible. Yet, they also incorporate the intangible elements of culture. As Isar (2011, 49) posits, “all monuments, sites and artefacts embody intangible components such as spiritual values, symbols, and meanings, together with the knowledge and the know-how of craftsmanship and construction”.
Throughout the history or raqs sharqi, old props have been adopted (such as the finger cymbals, which were used by the Ghawazee) and new ones introduced, such as the veil, which appeared when chiffon was introduced. As Samia Gamal once stated (Cifuentes 1994, para. 7), “I loved to work with soft fabric, which gave an ethereal illusion”. In this respect, the veil is an instrument for the dancer to dilate “her being-in-the-world . . . by appropriating fresh instruments” (Merleau-Ponty  1992, p. 166).
Likewise, costumes designs have changed with fashion, but two dancers who innovated through the use of costumes were Nagwa Fouad and Dina. Nagwa used costumes changes to introduce variety in her shows and Dina, thanks to the introduction of Lycra, was able to create very innovative designs. Dina used costumes as a way to innovate, as she stated (Talaat and Guibal 2011, 74):
The costume is important, it is part of the show. . . . It is there to enhance the body’s movements . . . . I do not want an ordinary costume. I do not want to be like all the other dancers.
Nagwa and Dina used costumes as a form of what Giddens (1984, 33) calls “allocative resources”, which are “forms of transformative capacity” that generate command “over objects, goods or material phenomena”.
Overall, in the current raqs sharqi authenticity discourse by an international community, attitudes, feelings and music have emerged as much more important elements of authenticity than visual settings and artefacts.
Costumes, props and make-up were mentioned sporadically, but as the outer layer, rather than the core elements. There are appropriate costumes depending on the music or style, for example, but they are not as important as the feeling. In explaining how she judges authenticity during competitions, Participant 3 mentioned that:
On a more superficial level you know immediately if the dancer knows what she is doing. And authenticity starts there. . . . You know from the body attitude. Because there is a specific attitude for every style. Then we’re talking about clothing.
We’re talking about props. You can tell how much she researched by details. What she is wearing, shoes, something on her hair, makeup. Second, authenticity is connected with the understanding of the music, your inner attitude. . . . Authenticity, I think, is a combination of knowledge and personality. Because you cannot be authentic in Egyptian dance if you just know the context and act accordingly. You have to be you. That’s authenticity.
Connecting authenticity to being true to oneself (“you have to be you” as in the quote above), is a modern Western construct, based on an idea first promoted by Rousseau, from whom “we learned that what destroys our authenticity is society” (Trilling 1972, 92).
This stance was adopted also by twentieth-century philosophers, such as Heidegger, who contrasts authenticity with inauthenticity, which was caused by people being caught in an “everydayness” that prevents them from truly “owning” themselves (Bendix 2009, 18).
As such, it is questionable whether being true to oneself would be part of an authenticity discourse for somebody who comes from a different cultural background. Still, this element has seeped into the international Egyptian Raqs sharqi authenticity discourse.
From the example of Egyptian Raqs sharqi, it emerges that the authenticity discourse for a specific dance community is a multi-layered phenomenon, involving a variety of factors.
The authenticity discourse, although it involves intangible and discursive values, is firmly and tangibly embodied in the practitioners themselves through movements, physical training, and emotions that are expressed through the body.
Although the existence of a movement vocabulary itself is assumed, it is not the main focus of the authenticity discourse for this specific international community, and it revolves instead around emotions, feelings, music, and the agency of individual dancers to express themselves.
Although Egyptian Raqs sharqi is a transcultural phenomenon, the international community still identifies some elements that they consider authentic even as the dance is transmitted and changes across time and space.
Looking back at Article 13 of the Nara Document on Authenticity, even if this was originally devised for built heritage, some of its elements can be applied to dance but need to be reinterpreted.
In particular: form as the aesthetic of a dance genre; use and function, with regards to the reasons why dance is performed in a social environment; traditions and techniques, which can refer to movement vocabulary and other conventions; location and setting, which could refer to the place in which the dance is performed; and spirit and feeling, as illustrated by the example of Egyptian Raqs sharqi.
For dance, however, “other internal and external factors” (UNESCO 1994) need to include artifacts, such as props and costumes, and the embodied individuals (as the unity of body and mind) who have the agency to create, re-create, innovate and communicate to other embodied individuals.
The authenticity discourse for other dance genres (or indeed other types of performing arts or physical activities, such as sports or martial arts) may focus around different aspects of authenticity. For example, they could give more importance to artefacts or spaces of production.
Also, different dance genres may privilege one of the senses over the others, as argued by Cohen Bull (2003). In analyzing ballet, Ghanaian dance, and contact improvisation, she posits that ballet is mainly visually oriented; Ghanaian dance is predominantly auditory, and contact improvisation is largely tactile.
In this respect, Egyptian Raqs sharqi would seem to be mainly auditory, but also emotional and gravitating towards what Reason and Reynolds (2010) describe as a kinaesthetic empathy, through which performers and audiences experience the performance together, in an embodied and culturally shaped way through their senses. This is why it is important to explore authenticity for each genre separately.
Moreover, a fluid understanding of authenticity, needs to be constructed around a specific community at a moment in time as the authenticity discourse is not fixed. As Handler and Linnekin (1984, 288) argue, traditions are ‘neither genuine nor spurious’ as they are always adapted to present needs and circumstances.
For example, Zebec (2007), when researching Tanac dance in Croatia, noticed that the younger dancers used a faster tempo compared to the previous generations. Zebec (2007, 15) recognized the difference but he thought it was not appropriate to impose a slower tempo to the young dancers in the name of authenticity, “since the young now embody the Tanac according to their own conceptions and the circumstances of contemporary life”.
Similarly, Van Zile (2002, 62), when writing about traditional Korean dances and Ness (1992) in her study on the sinulog dance tradition from the Philippines, posit that it does not matter if some current dance traditions are from the past or if they are invented traditions, as they represent important contributions to contemporary life and the sense of identity of the communities involved.
In conclusion, a concept of authenticity that is borrowed from the built heritage tradition without adaptations will lead to misjudgments if applied to dance as heritage.
Conversely, a framework of authenticity for dance (and other forms of ICH) is possible, provided it takes into consideration:
- the multi-layered and complex nature of dance
- its embodied, emotional and socio-cultural dimensions
- its changeable and transcultural nature
- the importance of human agency
- the discourse in which its practitioners engage
- and the existence of genre-specific values and traditions.
- For the sake of transparency, please note that Dr Valeria Lo Iacono, the author of this paper is also the editor of the Journal of Dance Heritage.
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1. UNESCO and other international organizations, such as ICOMOS have, over the years, issued other definitions of cultural heritage, in addition to the 1972 and 2003 conventions, as pointed out by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2004) and Ahmad (2006). However, for the scope of this article, the focus is on these two main conventions, because conventions are those that define rules to which member states have to comply with as law (UNESCO n.d.).
2. Direct quotations from the interviews are provided in this article, but all the names used are pseudonyms, to protect the participants’ privacy.
3. Suraya Hilal is a choreographer, dance teacher, and performer, who was born in Cairo and taught Raqs sharqi in the UK in the early 1980s (Hilal n.d.).
Hi – I’m Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.
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