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In the introduction (1.1), I mentioned the fact that much has been written academically on different aspects of bellydance but no studies have been done so far focusing solely on Egyptian raqs sharqi style.
In this part of the literature review, I discuss some academic studies that have included references to Egyptian style bellydance.
I will also engage with studies that investigate how Egyptian raqs sharqi has been transmitted or experienced across different cultures.
Ibsen al Faruqi
The oldest article I found, which is very useful in understanding the dance vocabulary in Islamic countries (which includes Egyptian raqs sharqi), was written by Ibsen al Faruqi (1978).
This article focuses on some of the formal characteristics of dance from Islamic countries (such as the small intricate movements, the preference for improvisation, the repetitions and serial structure, the abstract nature).
Ibsen al Faruqi (1978) compares the characteristics of the dance with other art forms from the same countries, such as painting, calligraphy and music, highlighting a common aesthetic thread.
These characteristics are not specific only to Egyptian raqs sharqi, but they can be observed in this dance genre, which helps to start understanding the formal aspects of the dance and how it relates to the culture it originated from.
Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda
A very informative study on Egyptian dances is Farida Fahmy’s MA thesis (Fahmy, 1987) as she was one of the founders of the Reda troupe in Egypt.
In 5.3.4 I will write in more detail about Mahmoud Reda.
For now, it is enough to mention that Mahmoud Reda was a choreographer, who choreographed dance scenes for Egyptian movies in the first half of the 20th century and he travelled across Egypt to document local folkloric dances and then created versions of these dances for the stage, which his troupe performed.
Fahmy’s thesis (1987) details the troupe’s experience of choreographing and performing Egyptian folkloric dance for the stage and, although it does not focus solely on raqs sharqi, there is an interesting section that explains how Mahmoud Reda changed raqs sharqi for the stage.
His input, as explained in 5.3.4, was very influential for the development of modern Egyptian raqs sharqi.
Van Nieuwkerk and Lorius
There are two publications (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995; Lorius, 1996) from the 1990s that are often cited in the raqs sharqi literature and which I will draw on in the course of this thesis.
They are not specifically on raqs sharqi, but they are useful for understanding the cultural background against which Egyptian raqs sharqi developed.
Van Nieuwkerk’s (1995) study focuses on the role of female performers in Egyptian society and it includes a history section.
Although it is not specifically about raqs sharqi dancers, it is useful to understand the role of dancers in Egyptian society and some historical background.
Lorius’ (1996) article focuses on the Egyptian actress and dancer Fifi Abdou (I have written more about her in 5.6.1) and it describes one of her live shows, in which Fifi performs different styles of Egyptian dance.
The main point though is made around how Fifi embodies the baladi (or working class) culture from Egypt and how she manages to disrupt the traditional patriarchal discourse of Egyptian culture, through her use of humour and personal charisma during her performance.
With regards to baladi culture, a very useful text to understand more about it is Early’s (1992) ethnography carried out in a baladi quarter of Cairo, in which she explores the lives and attitudes of baladi women.
Valeria Lo Iacono
Within the last 15 years, four PhDs on belly dance have been completed in the UK, which are worth mentioning and which are particularly relevant to this thesis as they focus on the international dimension of this dance.
This PhD that you are reading here (Lo Iacono, 2019) focuses on Egyptian style bellydance and on the intangible aspects of the dance as a form of living heritage. You can also read:
- Beyond Binarism: Exploring a Model of Living Cultural Heritage for Dance
- Intangible Cultural Heritage Beyond Borders: Egyptian Bellydance (Raqs Sharqi) as a Form of Transcultural Heritage
Bacon’s (2003) thesis is circumscribed to a specific group of ‘non-Arabic’ belly dancers in Northampton, England, who practise Egyptian style bellydance.
Some of the issues raised include how this type of dance is experienced by this group and how the dance has been transmitted to England.
Bacon (2003) presents a review of the literature, available at the time of her writing, on Egyptian dance, but she focuses mainly on the role of women and of dancing women in Egyptian society, rather than on the dance itself.
She describes and lists a few sources of popular literature on Egyptian dance and belly dance in general and she describes the panorama of belly dancing (including Egyptian style) in England (i.e., schools, festivals, some practitioners) to set the scene for her research.
As part of her field research, Bacon (ibid.) presents a list of the most common dance dynamics and movements that her participants perform.
These include the most common isolations in belly dance, such as, hip circles, hip drops, hip figures of eight and shimmies, which match some of the movements I have observed through my video analysis in Chapter 5.
In terms of the reasons why her participants want to learn Egyptian raqs sharqi, she highlights the fact that this dance provides them with a vehicle for transgression, to move in ways that are considered sensual and otherwise socially unacceptable.
Moreover, the teacher encourages participants to develop their own style, thus exercising agency which is, as it will emerge from my thesis, an important element of Egyptian raqs sharqi.
According to Bacon (ibid.), every participant follows her own pathway in her process of discovery of Egyptian dance, which is connected with their individual experiences.
Finally, Bacon (ibid.) reports that the group she studied are not interested in the cultural origins of Egyptian dance, but rather their interest lies solely in the pursuit of leisure.
The most interesting ideas though that I have gathered from Bacon’s (2003) research are her interdisciplinary approach and her interest in the ways in which Egyptian raqs sharqi has been transmitted across different countries and cultures.
In terms of the interdisciplinarity of her research, Bacon (2003, p. 12) declares that she is ‘drawing from sociology, anthropology of dance, dance ethnography and performance studies, in order to give prominence to the way in which dancing is never fixed but always in a state of becoming’ and that her (ibid.) ‘intention is to find a suitable theoretical frame where the action of dancing can be represented beyond Cartesian body-mind dualities’.
The interdisciplinarity is what my thesis is also aiming towards, for similar reasons, and I agree with Bacon with regards to the need to overcome body-mind dualities in the representation of dancing (as explained in Chapter 3).
Bacon (2003, p. 104) is interested in the way in which Egyptian raqs sharqi has migrated across the world and she writes ‘it is not simply that Egyptian dancers traveled to the United States or England and brought their dance with them, nor is it as simple as the Orientalist agenda that suggests the West appropriates from the East’.
I agree with Bacon in this respect. The transmission of Egyptian raqs sharqi between different countries has not been a straight and unidirectional process, as I highlight in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. Bacon (2003, p. 210) employs the concept of ‘network’ to explain this phenomenon:
The network of Arabic dancing is something that exists prior to a participant’s involvement with the world of Arabic dancing… This consists of workshops, classes, teachers, support organisations and the paraphernalia created by these organisations such as newsletters, magazines, videos and the like . . . Within the networks individually embodied paths exist and co-exist . . . knowledge exists in the popular memory, on the internet, in books, videos and the like and these exist and co-exist with the performative knowledge of the dancing.Bacon (2003)
Bacon (2003) adds that people become aware of these networks once they start dancing and they choose their own path within the network, thus experiencing different aspects of the dance.
In 2.6 and 6.4 I will also try to ascertain how Egyptian raqs sharqi is transmitted through bodies, experiences and artefacts and I will draw on Urry’s (2007) concept of mobilities and Welsch’s (1999) transculturality to support my argument.
In particular, I will argue that Urry’s mobilities provide the link between transcultural networks and physical and virtual movement of people, artefacts and ideas.
Another PhD thesis on Egyptian raqs sharqi that has inspired my own research is Caitlin McDonald’s (2010) research in Egypt, the UK and the US.
McDonald (2010) focuses on the globalisation of Egyptian raqs sharqi and the performativity of gender and identity through this dance.
Her research is not so much concerned with the dance itself (although she took a series of videos of dance, which she shared online), but rather with the way in which participants experience it and with the discourse around this dance.
In particular, her focus on globalisation and the role of the Internet for the transmission of this dance form has provided me with some ideas and starting points for my own research, which I then took in different directions.
McDonald (2010) identifies a global ‘belly dance community’, which uses the Internet to keep connected, and, in her research, she focuses on a game called ‘Second Life’, in which players use Avatars to live a virtual life.
This game, according to McDonald (2010), provides a platform for belly dancers to interact virtually. Inspired by McDonald’s research on the use of IT, I focused instead on websites, social media and online video sharing platforms to investigate how these facilitate the global transmission of Egyptian raqs sharqi.
Until the pulication of Lo Iacono (2019) the most recent PhD research on Egyptian raqs sharqi carried out in the UK was Cooper’s (2015) thesis, which is concerned with the way in which this dance genre is practised in England and the reasons why Egyptian style is considered a mark of ‘authenticity’.
Cooper’s (2015) argument is that, although bellydance practice in the UK involves (and has always involved) elements of different styles of bellydance, if dancers are connected to Egypt (if they trained or worked there) their dancing will be considered more ‘authentic’.
Cooper (2015, p. 17), drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of capital, argues that ‘authenticity acts as a functional exponent that adds or subtracts cultural currency . . . in Belly Dance discourse’.
Cooper’s (2015) research focuses on discourses around the dance rather than the dance and its formal aspects but her concept of authenticity is interesting.
She connects the authenticity narrative with power relations (and thus, the opportunity to increase a dancer’s social, cultural and economic capital). Cooper (2015, p. 65) describes authenticity as a:
Narrative that validates a Belly Dance practice . . . these narratives reinforce any pre-existing power relations found within a given Belly Dance community of shared practice . . . a narrative of authenticity represents a form of constructed authenticity.Cooper (2015)
According to Cooper (2015, p. 9) being trained in Egypt allows English practitioners ‘to authenticate their Belly Dance identity, create and own an English Belly Dance tradition, and improve their economic value as artists in a larger Belly Dance global market’.
In this thesis, I will also deal with the concept of authenticity but seen from a different angle (see 2.5 and 6.2).
While I agree with Cooper (2015) that authenticity is based on a shared narrative and it is constructed, I try to find out not what makes the dancing of non-Egyptians be perceived as authentic, but if there is a shared discourse among international practitioners on what actually is ‘authentic’ Egyptian raqs sharqi, if there is such a thing.
Shay and Sellers-Young and McDonald and Sellers-Young
Two publications that include references to Egyptian raqs sharqi (as well as to other styles of bellydance), and which I will be quoting throughout this thesis where appropriate, are two collections of essays by Shay and Sellers-Young (2005) and by McDonald and Sellers-Young (2013).
Topics in these collections include:
- Social dancing in Egypt (Adra, 2005)
- Dance in Egyptian films (Dougherty, 2005)
- The feeling of Egyptian dance (Bordelon, 2013)
- and the recent developments of raqs baladi in Egypt (Roushdy, 2013).
A recent and informative publication is Fraser’s (2014) research on records of bellydance in Egypt between 1760 and 1870. Fraser (2014) reconstructs a history of belly dance in Egypt before it was possible to film it.
She bases her reconstruction on sources (writings and drawings) from European travellers. Egyptian descriptions are not included simply because, according to Fraser, there are none.
Citing Saleh’s PhD thesis, Fraser (2014, sec. On Writing This Book) points out that, although ‘Egypt is known as a nation with a rich folk dance tradition, both its historical records of the past and the research interests of the present pay little or no attention to its ethnic dancing’ possibly because of the negative attitude in Egypt towards dance.
Fraser (2014) is aware of the caveats involved in using European travellers’ account of the dance, i.e. their biases, their orientalist attitude and the exoticisation of a different culture, thus she tries to compare as many sources as possible.
Fraser’s (ibid.) study is the first one that analyses these sources in a systematic and rigorous way and she manages to build a verisimilar picture, which includes the types of performers and their status in society, their professional organisations, the costumes, and the movement vocabulary.
This gives the reader a useful insight into what Egyptian dance might have been like before the 20th century.
Thus, I will draw on Fraser’s research at the beginning of Chapter 5 and I will continue reconstructing my version of the story from the first half of the 20th century.
In reconstructing a story of Egyptian raqs sharqi through video analysis, however, I share Fraser’s (2014, sec. On Writing This Book) concern that:
As a dance researcher writing about another culture . . . it was not possible for me to write “the” history of these Egyptian performers, but rather . . . I was creating “a” history, inevitably a personal one defined within the limits of my skills of cultural awareness.Fraser (2014)
The most recent publication by Sellers-Young (2016) on bellydance, includes references to Egyptian raqs sharqi, orientalism, the transmission of Middle Eastern dances across the globe and the way in which it has shaped the identities of its practitioners and the new forms, such as tribal, that have emerged.
This publication is based on visits to bellydance communities around the world that Sellers-Young did, as well as a review of the literature on bellydance.
There are some useful insights which I will be drawing on, where appropriate, throughout this thesis. In the next section of this literature review, I will bring together the literature on heritage and on dance to discuss some issues that these two fields have in common.