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Authenticity in intangible heritage

The Concept of Authenticity in Heritage

Transmission and change are connected with the concept of authenticity, which is difficult to assess for intangible heritage, in particular following a dialogical paradigm of heritage.

Moreover, the idea of authenticity clashes with the idea that intangible heritage promotes ‘human creativity’ (UNESCO, 2003, p. 2), since creativity implies agency and freedom to change.

The word authenticity was introduced by UNESCO in 1977 in Issues arising in connection with the implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO, 1977, p. 8) (see Table 2), which restricted the concept of authenticity to four components: ‘design, materials, workmanship and settings’.

This was in line with the 1964 Venice Charter (ICOMOS, 1964), which, Cameron and Inaba (2015, p. 31) remark, focused on ‘tangible attributes’.

However, Cameron and Inaba (2015) continue, 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, p. 597) argues, Japanese and Chinese buildings have what he calls a ‘built-in obsolescence’ as they are constructed with perishable materials, in need of regular replacement, but the buildings locations always maintain a symbolic meaning.


Nara Document on Authenticity

These issues led to a long process, described by Cameron and Inaba (2015), leading 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.

Article 13 of the Nara Document on Authenticity states that sources for judgement 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 2005 Guidelines

After the 2003 Convention on ICH, UNESCO issued the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO, 2005, p. 20), stating that authenticity is one of the determining conditions for the recognition of ‘outstanding universal value’ by UNESCO.

The 2005 Guidelines list the same marks of authenticity as the Nara Document, adding two more elements: ‘management systems’ (as part of traditions and techniques) and ‘language, and other forms of intangible heritage’ (UNESCO, 2005, p. 21).

In summary, the authenticity indicators for UNESCO (ibid.) are:

  • Form and design.
  • Materials and substance.
  • Use and function.
  • Traditions, techniques and management systems.
  • Location and setting.
  • Spirit and feeling.
  • Language, and other forms of intangible heritage.
  • Other internal and external factors.

Some of the above-listed elements can be applied to dance:

  • Form and design can refer to choreography or movement vocabulary
  • Materials and substance to props and costumes
  • Use and function could be the reason why a dance is performed (for example, ritual or social)
  • Traditions, techniques and management systems can refer to dance traditions, such as ways of moving and of managing performances
  • Locations and setting can be the physical performance space, the social setting, or if the dance is participatory or presentational
  • Spirit and feeling can be the feelings of the performers, the feelings that a dance genre or performance is supposed to convey, or the emotions induced in the audience.

The Yamato Declaration

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, p. 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, p. 75) argues that ‘UNESCO’s rejection of the concept of authenticity in its approach to heritage is a development consistent with academic theories of culture’. I will consider a few of these below.

Critique of the Concept of Authenticity

Handler (1986) and Bendix (2009) are two of the scholars who critique the concept of authenticity.

Bendix (2009, p. 7) identifies folklore as ‘a vehicle in the search for the authentic, satisfying a longing for an escape from modernity’.

Bendix (ibid.) posits that nationalist movements, since the Romantic era (in the 19th century), have always used folklore and the idea of authenticity to build a sense of belonging and national identity.

The reason why authenticity is problematic for Bendix (2009, p. 9) is that its existence implies its opposite, the fake, a spurious tradition, thus ‘continually upholding the fallacy that cultural purity rather than hybridity are the norm’ (I will return to the concept of hybridity in 2.6).

Also, labelling something as authentic, according to Bendix (2009, p. 8), leads to its commodification and ‘once a cultural good has been declared authentic, the demand for it rises, and it acquires a market value’.

Thus, it follows that authenticity is a discourse that facilitates issues of power and economics. Indeed, Purkayastha (2014, p. 55) presents a compelling example of an Indian dance practitioner and choreographer,

Uday Shankar, whose innovative works were considered ‘inauthentic’ as they ‘defied the hegemonic tendencies of the classicism project of the Indian nationalists’.

Uday Shankar

Authenticity as a Modern Construct

Similarly, for Handler (1986), authenticity is a modern cultural construct that is linked to the idea of individualism, part of a view of the world that sees cultures as discrete and separate entities asserting each other against other cultures.

He connects authenticity with ideas of individualism and commodification by stating that (Handler, 1986, p. 4):

Contact with authentic pieces of culture [i.e. museums, private collections or experiencing food in so called ethnic restaurants] . . . allows us to appropriate their authenticity, incorporating that magical proof of existence into what we call our ‘personal experience’.

Handler (1986)

I agree with the arguments put forward so far according to which authenticity is a modern construct that leads to commodification, issues of power differentials and that a quest for authenticity could lead to the ‘freezing’ of heritage that UNESCO (2016a, para. 22) warns against (as mentioned in 1.1).

Nevertheless, I agree with Bortolotto (2013) and Deacon and Smeets (2013) who argue that the idea of authenticity is still present, even if implicitly, in the 2003 Convention and that stakeholders may still value authenticity.

In order to support this point, Bortolotto (2013) uses the example of the Mexican cuisine nomination, in which the terms authenticity occurs nine times.

Bortolotto (2013, p. 78) argues that ‘the values conveyed by this word [authenticity] are not likely to be eradicated from heritage discourse since the two are closely interrelated’.

Margari (2016) identifies such connections when, writing about dance, she points out that, even if the 2003 Convention acknowledges that ICH is constantly recreated, it is nevertheless connected to ideas of stability and continuity.

Thus, Margari (2016, p. 243) posits, ‘the idea of a fragile and endangered intangible heritage that needs national or even international protection appears to be based on the monumental perception of ephemeral cultural elements’ and dance events acquire a different entity and become ‘intangible monuments’ (2016, p. 246).

Decontextualization and Denaturalization of Intangible Heritage

Deacon and Smeets (2013, p. 140) note this discrepancy in the 2003 Convention regarding authenticity by highlighting the presence of the words ‘identity’ and ‘continuity’  for communities in the text of the Convention (UNESCO, 2003 art. 2.1) and UNESCO’s warning about the danger of ‘decontextualization’ and ‘denaturalization’ in the Operational Directives (UNESCO, 2005, para. 102).

Furthermore, Deacon and Smeets (2013), conclude that communities should decide what should be maintained and what should change and they add that (2013, p. 140):

The Operational Directives implicitly acknowledge a broader view of community-defined context and continuity that is quite compatible with a community-centred reading of authenticity in the Nara Document. Communities themselves are often reluctant to abandon the notion of authenticity.

Deacon and Smeets (2013)

Seeger (2015) explains this discrepancy as a compromise between academics (who pushed for a non-fixed idea of ICH whereby there was no space for authenticity), and non-academics (more used to the words ‘authentic’ and ‘original’).

Thus, Seeger (2015, p. 139) writes that ‘the final wording was often a mixture of various positions . . . both old and new elements’.

Fluid Authenticity

Overall though, I agree with Deacon and Smeets (2013) that the Nara definition of authenticity is compatible with a community-centred interpretation of authenticity and thus the text of the Nara Document should be applicable to ICH. I, therefore, embrace Lowthorp’s (2015) concept of ‘fluid authenticity’ and Bakka’s (2015) distinction between the dance concept and the dance realisation, as explained in 2.2.1.

Thus, a dance form can abide by certain guidelines that help people distinguish between different genres, but at the same time the realisation (the actual moment of performance) can be unique and open to interpretations, ‘a practice can thus remain stable without being frozen’ (Bakka, 2015, p. 152).

Adopting a fluid definition of authenticity would also allow us to come to terms with the idea that traditions, as Handler and Linnekin (1984, p. 288) argue, are ‘neither genuine nor spurious’ because traditions, although based on or inspired by events from the past, 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 previous generations, probably because of how they wanted to come across on stage.

As an expert, Zebec (2007, p. 15) recognised 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, p. 62), when writing about traditional Korean dances and whether those that are performed today are authentic or invented traditions, she comes to the conclusion that it does not matter as ‘whether dance selected for recognition are actual activities from the past or recent constructions of a romanticized past, they nonetheless contribute to an important contemporary living tradition’.

Thus, what is more important is the value that is given today to a practice that makes it important for a community.

Living Modern Traditions

Another example of living modern traditions is highlighted by Ness’ (1992) study on the sinulog dance tradition from the Philippines.

Ness (1992) reports that there are many forms in which dance is performed and the most modern can be seen in parades that have today become a tourist attraction in Cebu City.

In spite of being modern and removed from the traditional context of the original dance, Ness (1992, p. 182) argues that ‘through a complicated but conventional series of reinterpretations, the parade dances reconstructed an authenticated local identity . . . reinvention of tradition, done not to reenter the past but to reclaim its unique integrity for contemporary purposes’.

Ness (1992) explains that these parades were not an exact reconstruction of codified choreographies, but they were based on a rigorous study of the past, to which they made references whilst being made for the present and allowing for creativity. Thus, they were ‘authenticated forms of the tradition’ (Ness, 1992, p. 190).


Nara Authenticity Indicators List and Raqs Sharqi

Having discussed how authenticity can still be relevant today for ICH, albeit in a flexible and not essentialist form, in what follows, I will investigate if there are any elements that could be added to the Nara Document’s authenticity indicators list, which are specific or better suited to dance and Egyptian raqs sharqi in particular.

In the course of this research, for example, spirit and feeling will emerge as particularly important for raqs sharqi. I will adopt a middle ground position with regards to authenticity, following a dialogical approach to heritage, and taking into consideration traditions, feelings and attitudes, as well as the unique circumstances under which each performance takes place.

Therefore, I will try to accommodate for change, as explained towards the end of this section.

In the field of dance studies, as highlighted in 2.3, in the 19th-century authenticity was sought in dance practised in rural areas, away from the corrupting influence of the city.

Today’s approach is more dialogical and holistic, but assessing authenticity for dance has always been difficult because, until recently, there were no ways of recording it, nor easy notation systems.

Moreover, a filmed dance performance only represents one point of view, as Thomas comments (2003, p. 131) ‘the idea of documentary film as a ‘living record’ in itself has increasingly been called into question . . . the way in which dance is shot . . . positions the gaze of the audience in a more fixed manner than a live performance’.

Videos are an interpretation of dance, because of the subjective way in which they are shot.

Whether the record of a dance is contained in a written description or an oral account, or exists on film or video, the standpoint of the person who records the event is a vital factor in the evaluation and use of that source.[1]

Adshead (1988, p. 19)

Regarding authenticity in dance, Thomas (2003) explores one aspect, which refers to the reproduction of old choreographies and how faithful it is possible to be to the ‘original’.

This aspect of authenticity in dance will not be explored further in this research because in raqs sharqi, although choreography is used for group performances and for teaching purposes, the focus is mainly on improvisation.

What Makes a Performance a Genuine Representation of a Genre

Another aspect, analysed by Daniel (1996) and Buckland (2001), revolves around what makes a performance a genuine representation of a specific genre.

This aspect of authenticity is more relevant to the purpose of this study. In the course of this research, one of the aims will be to discover what participants perceive as being authentic in raqs sharqi and if this is important for their experience of this genre.

This will be particularly relevant because of the transcultural dimension of raqs sharqi today, which means that dance changes not only between generations, but also in the transition between different cultural settings.

Jo Butterworth and Hybrid Forms

As Butterworth states (2012, p. 31), ‘through globalisation, practice and the advent of scientific research, dance techniques have been developed, appropriated and fused into hybrid forms’.

Change and hybridism, are not phenomena new to dance.

Kealiinohomoku (1970, p. 35) remarks that ‘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’.

Ritzer (2008, p. 178) suggests that, in tourism setting, performing arts are in danger of losing their authenticity, because ‘shows are often watered down . . . designed to please the throng of tourists and to put off as few of them as possible’.

Dance production and performance for tourists in NYC using traditional dance.
Dance is often used in a touristic setting – The question is how this changes dance.

While Ritzer’s point is worth acknowledging, it is, nevertheless, limited since it does not take into consideration the performer’s (or, indeed, the culturally informed spectator’s) point of view.

Yvonne Daniel and Rumba

Daniel (1996) shows a different perspective, by arguing that dance performances can still be authentic in tourism settings, despite the changes in the scale and context of the performances.

For example, Daniel reports that, in spite of changes in settings, costuming and light, voudou dance performances retain their authenticity in the mental disposition of the performers who, sometimes, manage to achieve a state of trance even whilst performing for tourists.

Hence, in this situation, authenticity is to be sought at a deeper level of experience, in the energy that performers transmit to the audience.

In Cuban rumba, according to Daniel (ibid), authenticity is achieved during the ‘sabados de la rumba’ (events organised by the Cuban government), in which performers invite tourists to dance with them.

Both tourists and dancers enter a liminal [2] world in which boundaries disappear and everybody enjoys dancing. When dancing with tourists who do not dance the rumba ‘properly’, performers are free to improvise and experiment, getting new ideas from outsiders, something they cannot do during staged performances.

Hence, Daniel (1996, pp. 781, 782) concludes that, rather than exhibiting ‘the usual effects of artistic commoditization . . . dance is often . . . a holistic and multisensory phenomenon that . . . communicates to tourists and performers at a fundamental level’.

Daniel’s insights reveal several aspects and layers of authenticity in dance, which will be explored in the course of this research.

Dance art in Japan

Hashimoto and Japan

Regarding folkloric performing arts in Japan, Hashimoto (2003, p. 226) locates authenticity ‘in practitioners’ subjectivity, and in the creativity with which they adapt to new contexts’.

Hashimoto’s research shows a variety of contexts in which performances take place and different concepts of authenticity apply to each.

The Hana-Taue is the traditional performance that takes place once a year and is classified by the government as ‘cultural property’.

This has to follow traditions, in order to ‘preserve’ the old ways. Other performances of the same art take place all year round in athletic grounds.

This type of performances does not have to adhere to traditions so strictly, thus creativity and innovation are not only allowed but expected. In this context, authenticity is found in the performers’ attitude and deeply felt feelings, rather than in the form alone. According to one of Hashimoto’s (2003, p. 234) interviewees, ‘the ritual will die out if we stick to only the old forms’. Hence, Hashimoto (2003, p. 227) argues, ‘we should reconstruct the notion of authenticity by considering the experiences, attitudes, and feelings of the practitioners of folk performing arts’

While I agree with Daniel and Hashimoto on the importance of performers’ attitudes and feelings in assessing authenticity, dance genres still have traditions that need adhering to, to a certain extent, for a certain genre to be identifiable. Adshead (1988, p. 78) notes:

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 (1988)

However, Adshead (1988) adds that genres also allow considerable freedom and fluidity, letting choreographers and dancers develop individual styles, which makes dance performances unique.

This fluidity can extend to the point at which a new genre is born out of an old tradition and, Adshead (1988, p. 76) posits, ‘the gradual formulation of new genres . . . exist as both continuations and reactions to what has gone before’.

The dialogical paradigm of heritage includes change, thus being suited for dance authenticity, as it leaves space for creativity. However, this needs to be balanced with the traditions without which genres would not exist and without which a concept of heritage would be meaningless, as there would be nothing to transmit and safeguard.

Dance as an Ephemeral Activity

Indeed, each dance performance is unique and, because of this, scholars such as Mackrell (1997) have stated that dance is an ephemeral activity, because:

  • each performance is unique
  • different viewers interpret the same performance in different ways
  • performances change depending on the bodies of different dancers who perform it at different times
  • there is no common object against which to test our opinion and we do not yet have a satisfactory way of recording dance that embraces all perspectives of a given dance.

However, Mackrell’s (1997) position does not consider permanent elements, identified by Hodgens (1988) as ‘crystallisation’ (as mentioned in 2.4) and by Adshead (1988) as genre specific ‘constraints’.

Performances (not limited to dance) are at the same time permanent and ephemeral, similar and different. Just like the human condition in Heraclitus’ river analogy, performances are always different:

LI (D. 91) Plutarch: [According to Heraclitus one cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but by the intensity and the rapidity of change it scatters and again gathers. Or rather, not again nor later but at the same time it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.] (Kahn, 1981, p. 168)

Plutarch

Heraclitus concluded that the paradoxical truth of life was that change was the only enduring aspect of existence; this might be applied to the permanent/ephemeral distinction.

According to Schechner (2013, p. 29), performances are never completely new because they are made by bits of ‘restored behaviour’, which are ‘physical, verbal, or virtual actions that are not-for-the-first-time; that are prepared or rehearsed’.

At the same time though, performances are unique and ‘many events and behaviours are one-time events’ (ibid). So, Schechner wonders (2013, p. 30), ‘how can both Heraclitus and the theory of restored behaviour be right?

Performances are made from bits of restored behaviour, but every performance is different from every other’.

The answer, Schechner (2013) contends, is the uniqueness of each performance context, how the parts are combined and performed and the reception from the audience.

Schechner (2013, p. 36) explains that ‘performances can be generalized at the theoretical level of restoration of behaviour, but as embodied practices each and every performance is specific and different from every other’.

Dance and Restored Behaviour

In dance, traditions constitute restored behaviour, while specific situations and the relationships between elements of the performance provide uniqueness and allow for creativity.

If traditions are considered, alongside feelings and attitudes (following Hashimoto’s (2003) and Daniel’s (1996) insights), two types of authenticity emerge: an ‘objective’ level, which refers to traditions, and a ‘subjective’ level, connected with participants’ feelings and attitudes.

As mentioned earlier, I apply a dialogical paradigm to authenticity, which takes into consideration the traditions, as well as the unique circumstances under which each performance takes place.

I agree with Naguib (2008, p. 472) who posits that tradition ‘involves imitation, repetition, and also a certain degree of innovation, which is a basic requisite to the process of transformation and helps turn stagnation into movement and change’.

This section has highlighted the hybridity of dance, due to different cultures interacting, which affects the issue of authenticity. The data from the ethnochoreological research in this thesis will support the idea of dance hybridity, as it will be detailed further in Chapters 5 and 6.

In the section that follows, the topic of internationalisation and how it affects dance/heritage will be covered in more detail.


1 – When I analysed the dance videos for this research (4.6.1), I was mindful that that they are visual artefacts, which have their own ‘sites’ and ‘modalities’ (Rose, 2012) as well as representing dance.

2- Drawing on Turner’s (1969, p. 95) concept of liminality as being ‘neither here nor there; … betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial’.

Next Page >> Internationalization of Heritage, transculturality and hybridism.

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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.