Last Updated on August 16, 2023

Change, traditions and dance.

Dialogical Paradigm

As living heritage is based on a dialogical paradigm, the dialectic between change and traditions is important and so is practitioners’ agency.

As Adshead (1988, p. 78) posits, ‘genres and styles place constraints upon . . . the nature and range of the material of the dance’ at the same time, however, Adshead (ibid) explains that genres allow considerable freedom and fluidity, so that dancers and choreographers can express their own style in each performance.

Traditions are analogous to structures (made of rules and resources), which are ‘always both constraining and enabling’ (Giddens, 1984, p. 25). Individuals, according to Giddens (1984), interact with structures through praxis and they can decide to reproduce structures or change them using resources, which are ‘forms of transformative capacity’ (1984, p. 33).

These resources can be tangible, such as artefacts, or intangible, such as the shapes and qualities of movements.

Agency, Traditions and Innovation

In Raqs sharqi, I have noticed that dancers’ agency is key in the decision to either innovate or stay close to traditions.

Whether dancers decide to innovate or remain closer to traditions, however, they always strive to develop their own style. Randa (Zahara and Shahin, 2012, para. 13) stated: ‘You must add to the dance.

You must leave your own fingerprint in the dance’. Throughout the dance analysis, it emerged that innovation can take place in different ways, through the following.

1. Adaptation Participatory Dance to the Stage

Badia Masabni was one of the first artists who created an adaptation for the stage of social dances.

Thus, for example, the dancers started using more travelling steps. Another example is Mahmoud Reda, who adapted folkloric dances and raqs sharqi for his theatre productions.

2. Introduction of Foreign Influences in the Dance

From the beginning of raqs sharqi in the 1920s in Cairo, influences from dances such as ballet and Latin dances were introduced.

Later, in the 1970s/80s, movements from Gulf dances were introduced and, in the 1990s, Soraya from Brazil introduced elements reminiscent of samba, such as running hip shimmies.

3. New Kinemes

New kinemes (or most often allokines and motifs) are created.

Some dancers, such as Naima Akef and Nelly Fouad, innovated by introducing new combinations (motifs) or variations of the basic movements (allokines).

4. Using New Props or Old Props Differently

The veil was introduced in the 1920s/30s; the thin saidi stick probably in the 1970s and Fifi Abdou used the shisha pipe for her comedy/dance routines.

As described in Chapter 3, artefacts are extensions of the body. Or ‘fresh instruments’ (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 1992, p. 166) that embodied agents appropriate; these instruments are also tangible resources and objectified cultural capital.

5. Performing Old Movements but with Different Qualities

Dina used more contraction and release in the muscles, with bound accents, and played with balance and variations of levels.

Likewise, Randa’s style includes movements that are for the most part direct, sudden and with a bound flow, as opposed to the opposite qualities, which are most commonly used by other raqs sharqi dancers.

6. Different Show Productions

Nagwa Fouad created big productions with several costume changes, backup dancers and different stage designs.

7. Costumes with New Cuts or Materials

The fashion for costumes has been changing constantly since the 1920s.

Dina innovated the most, creating new, unique designs (sometimes more revealing than usual) and making the most of the possibilities allowed by lycra, which was until Dina started dancing, a new material for Raqs sharqi costumes.

8. New Gestures or Mimicking Lyrics

Fifi Abdou was probably the first dancer who used gestures and facial expressions, to relate to the lyrics of the songs.

Since Fifi’s times, most Egyptian dancers do this now and Dina was the first one who started showing a whole range of emotions in her dance, in addition to joy and smiling.

9. Use of Different Music

Soheir Zaki was the first dancer who started dancing to Oum Kalsoum songs (which were not originally written to be danced to) and several new songs were written especially for Soheir Zaki and Nagwa Fouad.

New Fields of Cultural Production

As dancers decide whether to follow traditions or innovate, they carve a niche for themselves, in the Raqs sharqi ‘field of cultural production’ (Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993).

They act as players in the field, striving for dominance. This is a:

Struggle between those who have made their mark . . . and those who cannot make their own mark without pushing into the past those who have an interest in stopping the clock.

(Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993, p. 60)

Hence, new generations of dancers want to differentiate themselves, while older generations are usually critical of younger dancers.

Another issue associated with change vs tradition is class. Usually, the most traditional dancers, such as Tahia Carioca or Soheir Zaki, are called bint al balad, being associated with the working-class habitus of this dance.

As mentioned in, Baladi is associated with local, traditional and authentic.

Other changes have to do with the music, which changes over time. A type of hybrid music is created at the same time as the hybrid Raqs sharqi genre is born in the 1920s.

Since then, music has been changing according to trends, while new songs were composed for dancers. From what it has emerged from the Raqs sharqi discourse, music and dance are strictly connected, so a change in music can affect the dance and vice versa.

Taste, Locations and Social Occasions and Dance Heritage Change

Three more elements that can influence dance are taste, locations and social occasions in which the performance takes place.

It was the taste of the audiences in the 1920s that led to the creation of modern Raqs sharqi as a hybrid presentational dance.

From the mid-1990s, younger tourists and rich Egyptians prefer going to restaurants and small clubs, rather than nightclubs with professional dancers.

Hence, this could affect the way Raqs sharqi develops in the future, as locals become more interested in social (participatory), rather than presentational dance.

Lorna, for instance, observed that lately, in Cairo, upper-class young Egyptians have become more interested in dancing to Arabic music in clubs than they ever were before. She said:

When I first started going to Egypt, 13, 14 years ago, nowhere wanted to play Arabic music . . . in a club or a pub. Now, you don’t go into one without hearing it. And, therefore, often they have dancers coming in and dance on the bar, on the dance floor, around the tables, a lot of these are Egyptians.

Lorna (Research participant on this PhD)

So, the dance that once used to be performed mostly inexpensive hotels and nightclubs, now takes place in smaller venues, among the audience. This could influence the form of the dance, as for example, the opportunities for travelling steps become limited.

Next Page >> Transmission of dance heritage discussion.