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In what follows, I will review the literature about ICH and, more specifically, about practices that have received ICH recognition, to assess what happened as a result of the recognition.

Case studies higlighting what intangible cultural heritage is.

Benefits of ICH Recognition

The main benefit of ICH recognition seems to be that it raises awareness of a practice.

For example, Graeff (2016) and Robinson and Packman (2016) point out that this was the case for samba de roda[1] in Brazil, where this art form was re-valued as a tradition and the community found a new sense of cohesion, following the UNESCO recognition.


The UNESCO award also helped to stimulate new interest towards the Kun Qu opera [2] in China (Wong, 2009) as activities involving this art form were revived and DVDs were produced.

Similarly, Kutiyattam [3], from India, received increased recognition (and the practice attracted more public funding) (Lowthorp, 2015).

Even practices that were vilified (being ancient healing traditions but considered by some as superstitions), such as Vimbuza [4] from Malawi (Gilman, 2015) and Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut, a shamanic practice [5] from the Republic of Korea (Yun, 2015) attracted renewed interest and recognition, following the UNESCO award.

The Vimbuza Healing Dance

Some communities felt pride at learning about the UNESCO recognition, such as the practitioners of the Canto a tenore[6], in Sardinia, Italy (Macchiarella, 2008) or were thrilled and surprised, such as the inhabitants of Shimo-Koshiki Island in Japan, when Toshidon[7] was approved for UNESCO recognition (Foster, 2015).

Nominations for UNESCO ICH Lists

According to Seeger (2009, 2015), the ICH nomination process is laborious, long, and involves a number of stakeholders.

Seeger (2009) explains that, when submitting a nomination, a member state needs to produce a dossier.

This must include: a history of the form and its current status; a 10-minute video; additional videos to document the form; proof of agreement from the community that holds that practice; a detailed action plan and a budget for the safeguarding of the practice and the practice has to be compatible with human rights and the principles of UNESCO.

Seeger (ibid.) explains that the dossiers are sent to UNESCO, which then employs the help of individual specialists or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs, such as the ICTM[8]) who assess the dossier and then report back to UNESCO.

Common Reasons for Nominations to Fail with UNESCO ICH

Seeger (ibid.) lists the most common reasons for the failure of a nomination. One of the reasons is nationalism, in the sense that nations often tend to nominate the traditions of dominant groups within a country, neglecting the traditions of minorities.

Another reason for failure is if nominations are prepared by people who are not familiar with the traditions they nominate.

‘Cultural cleansing’ and ‘intentional cultural forgetting’ (Seeger, 2009, p. 122), i.e. neglecting to mention the influence of certain ethnic minorities in a tradition (such as the Rom musicians in rites of passage of non-Roma people) can lead to failure.

Finally, two more reasons for failure, according to Seeger (ibid.), are not meeting the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and not involving local practitioners in the plans.

In spite of the good intentions, however, even the nominations that manage to achieve the ICH recognition can experience negative or ambivalent effects following the award.

According to Seeger, (2015) the ways in which nations around the world implement the UNESCO programme are varied. Seeger (ibid.) explains that, although UNESCO can offer guidance, training and sometimes funding (although most often funding is provided to communities by the individual nation states), it cannot interfere with the internal workings of the member states. Hence, the influence of UNESCO is limited once the ICH recognition is awarded.

Dance performance in Nigeria.

Implementation Problems with ICH Listing

In spite of the fact that communities have a central role in the 2003 Convention, a common problem of its implementation is that the approach is “top to down”, with authorities and experts imposing their views and limiting the local communities’ agency. This has been noted, for example, regarding the:

  • Bell ringers [9] in Croatia (Nikočević et al., 2012), who resented the UNESCO’s intervention as they saw UNESCO as an outside entity;
  • Kolo dance [10] in Croatia (Zebec, 2013, 2015), where the lack of consultation with local practitioners led to the omission of details that were very important for its bearers;
  • ‘a tenore’ singers in Sardinia (Macchiarella, 2008), who saw UNESCO as an alien entity and felt that the nomination had been driven solely by the political ambitions of the city mayor;
  • Vimbuza in Malawi, where many people in the community involved did not even know what UNESCO was or that the practice had been listed (Gilman, 2015);
  • Mak Yong theatre [11] in Malaysia, with practitioners feeling that (Mohamad, 2012, p. 456) ‘scholars who may not speak the local language or actually engage in the practice “speak” for them’;
  • Kalbeliya [12] in India, whose practising communities were not even aware of the UNESCO recognition (Joncheere, 2015).

Top-Down Approach to Heritage and Folkloricisation & Commodification

This “top to down” approach might be driven by the political and economic interests that are at stake once a practice is given heritage status.

Very often, one of the main reasons behind the nomination is to use the ICH status of a practice to promote it as a tourist attraction (Wong, 2009; Robinson and Packman, 2014; Foster, 2015; Gilman, 2015; Joncheere, 2015; Silverman, 2015; Stepputat, 2015; Yun, 2015).

Sometimes this process can benefit a community. For example, Robinson and Packman (2014, p. 120) highlight that there have been ‘new opportunities for samba de roda practitioners to participate in Bahia’s cultural tourism and entertainment industries’.

However, the use of ICH for commercial purposes can lead to power conflicts, commodification and, one of the risks that UNESCO itself (2016a, para. 21) warns against, the distortion of heritage to suit tourists’ expectations.

This can lead to changes due to decontextualization of the practice, or to what UNESCO identify as ‘freezing’ of heritage or ‘folklorisation’, which involves imposing forced ‘authenticity’ on the practice.

Indeed, Robinson and Packman’s (2014, p. 120) research team have observed ‘dramatic changes in samba de roda . . . that are best described as rapid folkloricisation, professionalisation, institutionalisation and commodification’.

One of the most dramatic changes that Robinson and Packman (2014, p. 131) highlight is the loss of connection between music and dance.

They explain (ibid.) that musicians only groups are easier to book because they are smaller and require less floor space and no special lighting, thus they might in the future become the norm.

This means that dancers are left out, breaking the traditional relationship between dance and music and, Robinson and Packman (ibid.) argue, depriving women (who are often dancers) of income opportunities.

Similarly, Munsi (2012) reports that Chhau dance[13] is now performed for new audiences, outside its original community, both in India and abroad, which leads to changes as the dance is decontextualized.

Moreover, Munsi (ibid.) continues, new challenges arise when individual performers are chosen to perform outside of the village (for urban and/or international audiences), they are successful and become (Munsi, 2012, p. 170) ‘the epitome of all that is the formula to success, in the eyes of all those who were left back home’.

This means that, according to Munsi (ibid.), the change is not organic or driven by the community but influenced by outsiders.

Aesthetics, Tourism and Heritage

In a similar vein, according to Yun (2015), shamans performing rituals in Jeju Island (South Korea) become overconcerned with aesthetics when tourists and media are in the audience and rituals are often shortened for the stage.

Changes due to adaptation of the performance for the stage have also taken place for samba de roda, as observed by Graeff (2016), whereby performances become shorter, less improvised and more rehearsed and the mode shifts from participatory to presentational (I will return to the changes that social dances go through when adapted for the stage in more detail in 2.8).

Kalbeliya is another tradition that has been affected by UNESCO’s recognition through institutionalisation.

Joncheere (2015) reports that the transmission of the dance has changed and this could affect the dance itself, as it is now taught in schools, whereas traditionally it was only taught through informal observation. Moreover, Joncheere (2015, p. 90) observed what she calls ‘a “purist” wave in Kalbeliya performances in recent years that was mainly enforced by Rajasthani folklorist-managers’.

Thus, this is an example of the ‘freezing’ of heritage that UNESCO warns against.

The concern about stagnation and freezing of a ritual that may become too formal because of the UNESCO’s recognition was voiced by community members regarding the practice of Toshidon, as mentioned by Foster (2015).

Another issue relating to change in practices is over-simplification, due to the heritage identification process and the inventory-making involved.

For instance, Macchiarella (2008, p. 9) argues that ‘Sardinian multipart singing by chording has a great complexity of which there is not absolutely trace in Unesco proclamation acts’ as the cataloguing process simplifies musical complexity.

Similarly, Graeff (2016, p. 416) argues (referring to the subjectivity of a performer) that there are values in samba de roda that ‘can only be grasped, transmitted, understood and valued by sensing them through experience, as and within practice’ and these can never be catalogued in an inventory.

I will return to the subjectivity and feelings involved in ICH in the Conceptual Framework chapter.

Freezing Intangible Cultural Heritage and Fluid Authenticity

A solution to ‘freezing’ and, I would add, oversimplification, has been suggested by Bakka (2015) who argues that, normally, the documentation in support of nominations tend to privilege manuals or instructions in a linear and simple form.

What Bakka (2015, p. 152) proposes instead is to record and archive many realisations [14] of the practice, which can be used as ‘inspiration and knowledge base to support the continued practice’, rather than as a set of instructions.

Changes to a practice sometimes can be seen as adaptations that allow a practice to survive, following the loss of its original context.

Wong (2009, p. 34), for example, acknowledges that Kun Qu opera ‘has lost its traditional habitat forever’ and how it ‘will evolve . . . depends . . . on the whims of a modern mass audience, on policies shaped by the national and local government, and on the quality of local leadership and supporters.’

Talking about the way in which kutiyattam has adapted to modern audiences and is now patronised by the government rather than by royalty as in the past, Lowthorp (2015) talks about ‘fluid authenticity’.

She (Lowthorp, 2015, p. 33) defines it ‘a process facilitating the continuity of artists rather than a strictly defined form . . . a dynamic safeguarding based on a concept of art as inherently changing and adapting to contemporary audiences’.

In this respect, ‘fluid authenticity’ seems to fit into the dialogical approach to cultural heritage, which this thesis follows. I will further analyse the concept of authenticity in 2.5.

Commodification of ICH

The commodification of ICH, besides leading to more or less welcome changes, can also lead to power struggles, inequality and exploitation.

For instance, You (2015) explains that locals were mobilised to achieve recognition for the practice of worshipping the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun [15] in Hongtong County, in China, and were promised some funds from the state.

The funds, however, never went to the community and were all kept instead by the Hongtong Center for the Safeguarding of ICH.

Thus, as You (2015, p. 125) argues, ‘The ICH project . . . became a means for the local ICH center to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state’.

Another example is that of local Chhau performers who live in poverty, while those who represent this art form outside the community are the only ones who benefit from the ICH status (Munsi, 2012).

Conflicts often arise when funding is allocated to protect a practice, with some practitioners losing out because of the allocation system.

For instance, Lowthorp (2015) mentions that the new allocation system favours the seniority of institutions over the experience of individual artists.

So, more senior artists who belong to newer institutions receive less funding than less experienced ones who are affiliated to older bodies. The ICH recognition can also be cause for conflict and envy between practitioners of different practices.

The ICH recognition can also be cause for conflict and envy between practitioners of different practices.

This was the case, as reported by Macchiarella (2008), of the canto a tenore in Sardinia, whereby practitioners of other musical traditions wrongly assumed that a tenore singers received more funding from the government and preferential treatment because of the ICH recognition.

Before concluding this section, I will focus on the case of tango from Argentina and Uruguay, which was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

The version of tango that received recognition is the one from the Rio de la Plata basin, between Argentina and Uruguay. Tango, as highlighted by Stepputat (2015), was initially developed in that region by European migrants and is now practiced worldwide in many different versions and styles, which makes it (Stepputat, 2015, p. 337) ‘a prime example of a cosmopolitan genre’ while its (ibid.) ‘geographic power center . . . is Buenos Aires’.

In this respect, its situation is quite similar to that of Egyptian raqs sharqi, which is practised worldwide but its geographic centre is located (as will be discussed later in the thesis) in Cairo.

Stepputat (ibid.) also points out that the local centres where tango is practised, even if small, are connected by media and travel, which is also the case for Egyptian raqs sharqi as will be discussed in this thesis.

According to Stepputat (2015), there are contradictions in the tango nomination though. In particular, the fact that the nomination uses the expression ‘the tango’ is, for Stepputat (ibid.), problematic as this would include all different styles of tango practised globally.

Alternatively, Stepputat (2015, p. 337) argues, the nomination should have referred to ‘tango as practiced in the Rio de la Plata region’ and it should have acknowledged the fact that the dance is practised worldwide.

Also, Stepputat (2015) continues, the pictures used to advertise the tango nomination depict the stage version of tango, rather than the social version; the stage version (that has a different look) is what most non-tango dancers associate with ‘the tango’.

Hence, Stepputat (2015, p. 339) posits, ‘If the reason for the declaration was to cleanse the image of tango, this goal was not reached’.

Indeed, Stepputat (2015, p. 340) points out that ‘no changes in the tango culture . . . that could be directly linked to its status as UNESCO ICH surfaced, and it is unlikely, that this will change in the near future’ and she draws the conclusion (ibid.) that tango was nominated only for two reasons: to reclaim the culture of tango for Argentina and Uruguay and ‘to boost international cultural tourism in Buenos Aires’.

From this review, what emerges is that the biggest positive outcome from the ICH recognition is that it raises awareness about practices. The economic dimension, including the opportunity to draw more income from tourism, is a big factor also though.

The opportunity to raise income could potentially be beneficial for the communities involved, but it often seems to have drawbacks, such as: commodification; exploitation; inequality in the distribution of resources; freezing of the practice through folklorisation; decontextualization; top to down approach and conflict between groups or individuals.

It seems, however, that these issues are not caused so much by the nature of the UNESCO convention but rather by social, cultural and political issues that the practical application of the 2003 Convention has to deal with in real life.

Thus, I would argue, looking at the implementation of the ICH recognition from a sociological point of view is essential as it can shed light on the social dynamics of power and agency. The major problem caused by the categorisation and inscription process itself is the oversimplification of practices.

There are steps that can be taken to counteract some of these problems, to a certain extent.

  • Firstly, the oversimplification could be tackled by adopting Bakka’s (2015) idea of non-linear documentation.
  • Secondly, the concept of ‘fluid authenticity’ suggested by Lowthorp (2015) should be embraced, particularly when it is the only way in which a practice can survive, having lost its original context.

With regards to cosmopolitan practices, such as tango, it seems important to maintain clarity as to which version exactly of a practice is being protected, while acknowledging the global reach of that practice and the existence of other styles.

The case of Egyptian raqs sharqi is different though, in the sense that Egypt is ambivalent towards it and there is no power struggle between nations over who should own it as heritage.

Nevertheless, this is an important transcultural practice with an international community of practitioners, so it is worth investigating. I will return to these ideas in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7, to discuss their application in relation to Egyptian raqs sharqi. However, first, in what follows, I will focus on the dance studies literature.


1 – Samba de roda of the Recôncavo of Bahia, is a dance and music tradition from Brazil that was recognised as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2005 and, in 2008, it was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

2 – Kun Qu opera is a theatre tradition from China that was recognised as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2001 and, in 2008, added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (

3 – Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre, from India, was recognised as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2001 and, in 2008, added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

4 – Vimbuza healing dance from Malawi, was recognised as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2005 and, in 2008, added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

5 – Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut was added in 2009 to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity .

6 – Canto a tenore, Sardinian pastoral songs, recognised as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2005 and, in 2008, added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

7 – Koshikijima no Toshidon is a local tradition from Japan, which involves adults disguised as deities called Toshidon visiting children and their families every New Year’s Eve to scold children about any mischief they got into and preach good behaviour. Toshidon was added in 2009 to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

8 – International Council for Traditional Music.

9 – Annual carnival bell ringers’ pageant from the Kastav area, added in 2009.

10 – Nijemo Kolo, silent circle dance of the Dalmatian hinterland, added in 2011.

11 – Mak Yong theatre, recognised as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2005 and, in 2008, added to the Representative List.

12 – Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan, added in 2010.

13 – Chhau dance, from India, was added in 2010.

14 – Bakka (2015, p. 151) explains, with regards to dance, that its realisation is ‘the act of dancing a certain dance’, while the concept is ‘base of skills, knowledge and understanding’ that a dancer draws upon.

15 – Hongtong Zouqin Xisu, translated by You (2015, p. 113) as ‘the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong’ is practiced in Hontong County, Shanxi Province, China and was named an item of national ICH in 2008.

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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.