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1.1 – Map of Concepts

Figure 1 provides a map of the concepts that have initially guided this research [1].

In Table 1, I have provided a brief explanation of four key terms in this thesis: cultural heritage, raqs sharqi, ethnochoreology and transculturality. Egyptian Raqs sharqi, as a dance genre, and the UNESCO concept of ICH are the starting points for this study.

According to Article 2 of the 2003 ICH convention (UNESCO, 2003, p. 2):

The intangible cultural heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.

UNESCO (2003)

How UNESCO Define Practices, Traditions and Performing Arts

Many practices, traditions and performing arts (429 at the time of writing) have been added to the UNESCO’s lists of ICH [2].

There are three lists (UNESCO, 2016c) are the:

  • List of ICH in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, for elements that need urgent measures to keep them alive
  • Representative List of the ICH of humanity, which includes elements that show the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness of its importance
  • Register of Best Safeguarding Practices, which includes practices that best reflect the principles of the Convention.
The Estonian Smoke sauna tradition.

Examples of elements included in the lists are[3] (UNESCO, 2017b):

Traditional Examples

Traditional craftsmanship, such as the smoke sauna tradition in Võromaa, Estonia (practice and construction).

Social Practice and Festival Examples

Social practices and festivals, such as the:

  • Coming forth of the masks and puppets in Markala, Mali
  • Oral traditions, including the Vedic chanting in India
  • Knowledge concerning nature, such as the Andean cosmovision of the Kallawaya (Bolivia) and performing arts of different types, including Iraqi maqam, Wayang puppet theatre (from Indonesia) and Tibetan opera.

Browsing the lists of ICH on the UNESCO’s website (2017b) and using the keyword ‘dance’, at the time of writing, 169 entries came up.

Many of these refer to festivals or celebrations, of which dance is one of the components (for example, the pre-wedding ceremony of Geet-Gawai in Mauritius, which combines prayers, songs, dance, music and rituals).

Geet Gawai dance

At least 40, refer to a form of dance (or dance and music) in its own rights, for example:

  • Argentinean Tango
  • Spanish Flamenco
  • Chhau dance from India
  • Bigwala music and dance from Uganda
  • Huaconada from Peru.

Egyptian raqs sharqi is not recognised by UNESCO as cultural heritage (the Egyptian government would need to nominate it, for consideration by UNESCO [4]), but I use it here as a case study to explore how to safeguard a transcultural dance genre as a form of cultural heritage.

I have chosen the expression ‘safeguarding’ as defined by UNESCO (2003, p. 3), in article 2 of the 2003 Convention, as it is a term that includes the ‘identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission’ of cultural heritage.

The benefits of the cultural heritage recognition consist in raising awareness about a cultural expression, valued by a community, by, as UNESCO state, (2016a, para. 21) ‘encouraging dialogue, thus reflecting cultural diversity worldwide and testifying to human creativity’.

The issues of identity, transmission and authenticity emerge from the cultural heritage literature but also from the dance literature.

For ICH, as defined by UNESCO, people are central, hence communities need involving in its safeguarding.

Indeed, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2004, p. 58) posits, people are subjects of cultural preservation and ‘agents in the heritage enterprise itself’.

The idea of people’s centrality led me to seek the values of heritage and the uses that people make of it (drawing on Smith [2006]), which would justify its safeguarding.

ICH (Intangible Cultural Heritage) and Risks

The ICH recognition, however, includes risks.

These, as outlined by UNESCO (2016a, para. 21), are that attention drawn to this type of heritage could create distortions or freeze heritage into unchangeable forms, preventing its natural change and evolution.

UNESCO (ibid. para. 22) point out that care would need to be taken that the heritage is not damaged by, for example, ‘freezing heritage through a ‘folklorisation [5]’ process or the quest for ‘authenticity’.

Indeed, Gore and Grau (2014, p. 121) contend that ‘a reified heritage could easily be hijacked by ethnic nationalists and be used to promote “tradition” and the “nation” in a hegemonic fashion’.

For example, Wilcox (2011) points out how the Chinese government has appropriated the movement traditions of ethnic minorities from China, thus leading to a distorted and simplified representation of them (ibid, p. 327) ‘devoid of any historical context’.

Another danger, pointed out by UNESCO (ibid), is that its ‘market value’ could become more important than its cultural value if, for example, heritage is distorted to accommodate tourists’ expectations.

A solution to the above problems could be adopting a dialogical paradigm of heritage (following Bodo [2012]), which, rather than seeing heritage as constant and immutable, sees it as the result of continuous developments and renegotiations.

Another issue is the tangible/intangible divide, created by the label of intangible, which I question in my conceptual framework (3.7). Some heritage scholars (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004; Skounti, 2008; Smith and Akagawa, 2008; Howard, 2010; Isar, 2011; Naguib, 2013) are also uncomfortable with separating intangible from tangible elements in heritage.

Dance research framework

On the right side of Figure 1, I have placed Egyptian raqs sharqi (and dance more generally).

Egyptian raqs sharqi is a genre, included in the group of dances called bellydance, which have in common the use of hips and torso isolations. As Shay and Sellers-Young (2005, pp. 1–2) argue:

Belly dance is not historically a single dance but a complex of movement practices or vocabularies that extends from North Africa through the Middle East and Central Asia to the western portions of the Indian subcontinent as well as western China. [6]

Shay and Sellers-Young (2005)

Although this thesis refers to Egyptian style raqs sharqi, it is worth first introducing the concept of bellydance as a whole and how it was transmitted across the world.

Bellydance was first introduced in the USA during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, when expressions of culture from different parts of the world were represented, including Northern African and Middle Eastern dances.

Shay and Sellers-Young (2003, p. 16) report that Sol Bloom coined the term bellydance.

This was a direct translation from the French danse du ventre, used to refer to Northern African dances, involving hips and torso movements.

Bellydance & the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

In the late 1800s/early 1900s, the hips and torso movements, characteristic of bellydance, were imitated by burlesque dancers in North America, who called this dance style ‘hootchy-kootchy’ (Desmond, 1991; Bryant, 2002; Jarmakani, 2004).

Likewise, ‘Middle Eastern and East Asian elements were concurrently appearing in dance performances that were considered more highbrow’ (Bryant, 2002, p. 177).

For example, Maude Allan and Ruth St. Denis used such elements in their theatrical performances.

As Shay and Sellers-Young report (2005), in the 1960s Middle Eastern dancers started performing in nightclubs and restaurants in America run by emigrants from the Middle East.

Later on, American born dancers, trained by Middle Eastern dancers, started performing and teaching. In the 1960s/70s, Shay and Sellers-Young (2005) continue, bellydance acquired a new meaning in the West, thanks to the feminist movement.

Bellydance was embraced as a way to displace Western conceptions of the female body as negative and it was seen as a liberating form of dance. Bellydance then spread across the world from the USA to Europe, South America, Asia and Australia.

Today, bellydance (and raqs sharqi as a subgenre) is practised in countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, China, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the UK, just to name a few (McDonald, 2013).

As mentioned earlier, bellydance includes a range of dances originating from a number of different countries (Shay and Sellers Young, 2005). According to Sellers-Young (2016, p. 4), these are solo improvisational forms based on isolations of different body parts (head, arms, hands, hips and torso); they differ in style depending on the country in which they are practised or originate from and they have different names.

For example, bellydance is called raqs sharqi (‘oriental dance’ in Arabic) in many Arabic speaking countries; cifte telli in Greece; karslima in Turkey and raqs alfarrah (meaning dance of happiness) in Lebanon.

American tribal bellydance is a new hybrid form that originated in San Francisco (USA) in the 1980s (Sellers Young, 2016).

Egyptian raqs sharqi, a form of bellydance, is the dance genre analysed in this thesis.

This particular style of bellydance has become one of the most influential genres of bellydance worldwide, so much so that, for example, Cooper (2015) argues that training in Egypt or having connections to that country confers an aura of authenticity to belly dancers in England.

Mid-1990s, Belly Dance, Cinema and Egypt

One of the most likely causes for the privileged position of this bellydance style, is the influence of Egyptian cinema in the Arabic world, particularly in the mid-1900s.

During that time, Egypt became ‘the film and entertainment center of the Middle East’ (Shay and Sellers-Young, 2005, p. 19) and many films were produced, in which dance scenes with belly dance were prominent (Dougherty, 2005).

Cinema, therefore, allowed Egyptian style raqs sharqi to spread, acting as a type of ‘imaginative travel’ (Loiacono and Fallon, 2018, p. 294). Even today, dance scenes from these movies can be seen online on sites such as YouTube or Vimeo.

Egyptian raqs sharqi is the stage version of local Egyptian dances such as baladi (the local social dance) and ghawazi (the dance of the Egyptian travellers), with influences from Egyptian folkloric dances.

Raqs sharqi was born as a stage adaptation of these dance forms in the 1920s in Cairo, for an audience that included both foreigners and Egyptian people.

As such, it was also influenced from its inception by Western dance forms, such as ballet and ballroom dancing (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995).

The history of raqs sharqi will be elaborated in more detail in the dance analysis section (Chapter 5).

Since the 1920s, by spreading around the world, raqs sharqi has changed and evolved both in Egypt and abroad, assimilating many different influences in the process.

Because of this, raqs sharqi is an example of hybridism and transculturality in dance.

Bringing in Transculturality, Ethnochoreological and Sociocultural Perspective

This transcultural element adds another, often ignored, dimension to cultural heritage, as something that crosses cultural, national and ethnical boundaries.

The moving human body is central to dance’s existence. This point reconnects with questioning the suitability of separating cultural heritage into tangible and intangible forms.

The way in which such forms of heritage are embodied, carried and transmitted (within and across cultures) by people via their everyday practices, experiences and traditions will be investigated from an ethnochoreological and sociocultural perspective.

The term ethnochoreology (see Table 1 for a definition), coined by Prokosch Kurath (1960), means the study of ethnic dance and, according to Kealiinohomoku (1970), every dance is ethnic.

Kealiinohomoku came to this conclusion in her 1970 seminal article An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance, which I will talk about in more detail in the literature review (2.3).

Since the publication of her article, Kealiinohomoku’s idea (which I agree with) has been widely embraced in the dance literature (Daly et al., 1992; Daniel, 1996; Van Zile, 1996; Reed, 1998; T. Buckland, 1999; Grau, 2008). I adopt an ethnochoreological perspective to approach dance as something that has its roots in a specific culture/s.

The Dance Heritage Discourse

The heritage discourse does not shed enough light on what happens when heritage becomes transcultural, nor on the human body as a carrier of cultural heritage.

Hence, this study will explore these aspects in connection with dance/heritage.

Also, while there is abundant material on the topics of heritage and dance studies, they are two separate fields in the literature, with limited material addressing dance as a form of cultural heritage: this study aims to fill the gap.

Moreover, many studies cover bellydance as a whole or American tribal bellydance (a different genre created in the 1980s), but no academic studies have focused solely on Egyptian raqs sharqi.

Studies have been published on bellydance as an/on:

  • International phenomenon (Laukkanen, 2003; McDonald, 2013)
  • Orientalism (Dox, 2006; Jarmakani, 2008; Maira, 2008; Haynes-Clark, 2010)
  • Body image and belly dance (Downey et al., 2010; Tiggemann, Coutts and Clark, 2014)
  • Its health benefits (Szalai et al., 2015)
  • Aging (Moe, 2014)
  • Identity (Kenny, 2007; Kraus, 2010)
  • Spirituality (Kraus, 2009)
  • and gender (Karayanni, 2004, 2009; Keft-Kennedy, 2005; Kraus, 2014).

No ethnochoreological study has been done so far, however, which examines the dance movements as well as the sociocultural dimension of raqs sharqi, nor a study which connects this dance to the heritage discourse. This study aims to fill this gap, to unite the two areas of research.

This point of view would provide recognition of raqs sharqi as a cultural practice, thus highlighting its contribution to human creativity and cultural diversity.

Following Gore and Grau (2014, p. 130), dance is ‘not only as a movement practice, but also as a special mode of relational experience with its own distinct properties’.

Developing a Framework for Dance/Heritage

Thus, a framework for dance/heritage is required, which ‘will allow dance to be elevated in value as a vital part of human world heritage, but on its own terms, without being forced into pre-existing heritage models’ (Lo Iacono and Brown, 2016, p. 102).

In seeking to develop the above-mentioned framework, I moved from the idea of ICH, towards the idea of ‘Living Cultural Heritage’ (Lo Iacono and Brown, 2016).

My interdisciplinary research on dance, embodiment, heritage, sociology and anthropology, has led me to the conclusion that heritage is not only something external to us, such as an artefact, a building, an object that we have inherited from the past. Instead, cultural heritage is alive and it is within us, embodied within the people who experience it and transmit it.

The idea of living cultural heritage is implied in the 2003 UNESCO definition of ICH, but it is worth making this concept explicit and expanding on it.

In the 2003 UNESCO’s definition, cultural heritage still appears as something detached from the individual, an external object that needs preserving, as people (UNESCO 2003, p. 2) ‘recognize’ it.

Living cultural heritage is instead something that is alive within each individual and in each society and something we recreate or modify with our everyday actions.

Moreover, the label of intangible implies a separation between tangible and intangible elements of heritage, which I will be arguing against as tangible (embodied people, artefact, space) and intangible (traditions, emotions, knowledge) elements are instead interconnected.

Hence, I propose a holistic framework of heritage, which develops from a duality (a unity of two divergent aspects of the same reality), rather than a dualism (two divided and distinct entities) of tangible and intangible.

The idea of duality is inspired by Giddens’ (1984) Structuration Theory, which presents social structure and individual agency as a duality.

Central to this interpretation of cultural heritage are Merleau-Ponty’s ([1945] 1992) phenomenology and idea of habit and Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of practice and concept of habitus.

These have been selected as conceptual tools in the understanding of living cultural heritage, because of their post-dualist nature, which helps address the separation between mind and body, subjectivity and objectivity and, therefore, tangible vs intangible.

Enjoying tradition dance in Cairo, Egypt.
Watching a traditional dance show on a boat in Cairo, Egypt.

We embrace dance and movement traditions through our own moving bodies and these movements become part of who we are, embedded into the core of our being. As Csordas states (1990, p. 5): ‘The body is not an object to be studied in relation to culture, but is to be considered as the subject of culture . . . the existential ground of culture’.

As well as the body, traditions are central to living cultural heritage. Embodied traditions shape individuals defining their sense of identity (on an individual, social and cultural level).

In turn, individuals shape traditions. This idea connects with a dialogical (or dialectic and reflexive) paradigm of heritage (Bodo, 2012).

Giddens’s (1984) post-dualist Structuration Theory (which seeks to address dualisms between structure and agency in sociology), provided the theoretical underpinning for the interaction between the individual dancers and traditions.

The traditions, transmitted between generations and between cultures, are analogous to Giddens’s social structures, while the human agency is embodied by the dancer (as well members of the audience, choreographers and other people involved in the performance process), who correspond to the individual agents identified by Giddens.

Hence, the tradition, with its structure, influences and shapes the body of the dancers and the way they train and move.

The dance tradition, the heritage, is visible in the body of the dancer. At the same time, the embodied dancer and any previous training s/he had, together with their cultural background and personality, creates unique individual performances.

These can, in turn, generate new traditions and conventions. In addition to Giddens’, Bourdieu’s and Merleau-Ponty’s post-dualist theories, the framework I adopted is based on dance studies, particularly Adshead’s (1988) dance analysis principles, ethnochoreology and Cynthia Cohen Bull’s (aka Novack) approach to the study of ‘movement as culture’ (Novack, 1988).

From the literature on heritage, this thesis will explore the concepts of transmission, identity, authenticity and ‘uses of heritage’ (Smith, 2006). Since ICH, I propose, is not limited by geographical and nation-state boundaries, I will analyse the international aspect of raqs sharqi based on Welsch’s (1999) concept of transculturality (see Table 1).


1 – Egypt was one of the first signatories of the 2003 ICH Convention (UNESCO, no date e). Presently, two Egyptian traditions are in the Representative List of the ICH of Humanity (UNESCO, 2017a): Tahteeb (a stick game) and the Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah epic. UNESCO (no date f) provides weblinks to organizations that promote Egypt’s heritage. From these links, it emerges that in Egypt there is a fair amount of interest in protecting folkloric music and dance of Egypt, oral traditions and festivals. However, I could not find any mention of raqs sharqi.

2 – McDowell (2010, p. 182) defines folklorization as ‘to remove traditional expressive culture from an original point of production and relocate it in a distanced setting of consumption’.

3 – North Africa, in this context, includes the countries on the Mediterranean coast going from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east.

The Middle East region goes from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, with countries such as Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, to the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran.

Central Asia consists of the countries east of Iran and west of India and western China.

4 – The colours in the map were chosen for aesthetic reasons, with no colour coding.

5 – The UNESCO procedure states that (2016a, 2016b) only governments from states parties of the Convention can nominate ICH, but there must be full participation and consent from the community concerned. Nominations must be compatible with international human rights.

6 – All the elements mentioned are from the Representative List, except for Bigwala music and dance, which is in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Next Page >> The rationale behind this PhD on dance explained.

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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.