Last Updated on August 14, 2023

In the previous section, I introduced ethnochoreology and I mentioned that my research has been influenced by this discipline, in particular with regards to its multidisciplinary approach to the study of dance.

In this section, I will further explore the literature on ethnochoreology to highlight its origins, its most recent developments and how these helped me investigate Egyptian Raqs sharqi from the cultural heritage angle.

Ethnochoreology literature

The History of Ethnochoreology

Dunin (2014) traces the emergence of ethnochoreology back to the 1950s, with publications by the two Janković sisters in Serbia and by Gertrude Kurath in the United States, and the role played by Maud Karpeles in England.

Dunin (ibid.) explains that the Janković sisters and Gertrude Kurath never met but they were linked via the International Folk Music Council (IFMC), which Maud Karpeles contributed to launching in 1947.

Maud Karpeles, as Dunin (ibid.) recounts, was researching folk dances in England with Cecil Sharp since 1911.

After Cecil Sharp’s death (in 1924), Maud Karpeles continued researching dance but her connections led her to travel abroad, to Prague and France, which gave her an ‘expanded vision of dance outside of English forms’ (Dunin, 2014, p. 199).

Subsequently, Dunin (ibid.) continues, Karpeles’ expanded vision ‘probably influenced her next steps, by guiding the merger of … the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS) and Folk-Song Society (FSS) into the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) in 1932’, which then organised a European folk-dance festival in 1935.

About 500 dancers from 16 different countries, according to Dunin (ibid.) took part who, before returning home, founded an informal body called ‘International (Advisory) Folk Dance Council’.

Dunin (ibid.) continues to explain that, after the interruption caused by the Second World War, the International (Advisory) Folk Dance Council reconvened in London in 1947, deciding on the constitution of the International Folk Music (Dance and Song) Council.

Dunin (ibid.) writes that Karpeles initiated a group for the study of dance, as part of the IFMC, with an international reach, which included in the list of names for its international cooperation, Janković (for Yugoslavia) and Gertrude Kurath (for the United States).

I previously mentioned (in 2.3) the importance of Gertrude Kurath’s studies for the development of ethnochoreology in the US. Eastern European dance studies were just as influential in the development of this discipline, as folk dances had been studied there since the 19th century to develop a national identity and, later, under the communist regime, to represent and reinforce the values of that regime (Giurchescu and Torp, 1991; Maners, 2006; Karoblis, 2013).

Indeed, the ethnochoreology study group part of IFMC was further developed in 1962 by a group of Eastern European dance scholars coordinated, between 1962 and 1981, by Vera Proca-Ciortea from Romania (Giurchescu and Torp, 1991; Dunin, 2014).

In 1981, the International Folk Music Council (IFMC) changed its name to the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) (Dunin, 2014, p. 202) and the ethnochoreology group became the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology as it is still known today.


The Emergence of the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology

It is evident from its history, that ethnochoreology has always been a field of international cooperation. However, according to Gore et al. (Gore, Grau and Koutsouba, 2016, p. 180), it was after the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, that the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology really became ‘a global network for scientific cooperation’, bringing together scholars from all over the world.

As well as increasing its international reach, over time ethnochoreology has also developed by expanding its focus.

Already, according to Dunin (2014, p. 203) the Janković sisters, Kurath and Karpeles were pioneers towards a new way of studying dance in the sense that ‘their approaches went beyond ‘folk dance’ or ‘folk music’ as collectable products as was the model at the beginning of the twentieth century with the purpose of preservation and revival’.

At the very start though, Giurchescu and Torp (1991) argue, the focus of the Study Group was mainly on the formal aspects of dance, such as establishing a universal terminology; creating an analytical method for the study of dance; developing a classification system and annotating dance.

They (ibid.) then add that, more recently, the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology has become a forum for the exchange of ideas on ways to research dance, which (1991, p. 7) ‘has resulted in . . . a broadening of the scope of research thus, encompassing, . . . the anthropological and the choreological approaches as complementary and necessary in the holistic study of dance’.

This development is in line with the development in the field of dance studies highlighted in the previous section.

Dance Ethnology in America and Europe

Moreover, the modern approach to ethnochoreology has also benefitted from a closer convergence of European and American approaches, as Zebec (2009) argues.

According to Zebec (ibid.), ethnochoreology in Europe focused on the form of the dance and the research methods employed were interviews and participation.

Dance ethnology in America instead, Zebec (ibid.) continues, focused on the participants to the event and their role in society.

As a result, Zebec (2009, p. 143) argues, this approach also focuses on the researchers’ experiences, ‘their own starting points’.

Zebec highlights that (ibid.) ‘recent ethnochoreology examines everything that affects researchers in the selection of the object of research and how they write, who and what about’.

An example of reflexivity in ethnochoreological studies is Buckland’s (2006) chapter in which she reflects back on her experience of researching Morris dance at the beginning of her career, thus uncovering biases that she was originally unaware of.

Another development in the field of modern ethnochoreology, Zebec (2009) points out, is the use of the diachronic dimension together with the synchronic dimension in the study of dance, as well as a full involvement in the dance events.

Zebec (2009, p. 141) credits Dunin with using this approach in her research by pointing out about Dunin that:

She compares communities on three continents diachronically, and dance events synchronically. By doing so, she gains a better insight into the social dynamics of dance. She observes and participates in dance events and thus gains a better insight into the complex social interaction, which would not be possible using only the interview method.

Zebec (2009)

Indeed, Dunin (2006, p. 195) supports this approach stating that ‘a dance ethnology study is not based upon one-time contact but upon multilevel contacts in multiple time frames providing a continuity of data making for a historical record’.

This is the same approach that Zebec (2009, p. 143) follows, by participating in dance events, as well as observing them. He (ibid.) uses both the synchronic and diachronic approaches, ‘studying historical sources in order to discover the patterns of behaviour where history, migrations, social relations, religion and philosophy of a particular community are expressed in the modern context as well’.

Applied Ethnochoreology

A recent development is applied ethnochoreology, which derives from the ethnochoreologist’s involvement in the field and his/her interest in a deep understanding of the context of the dance and in the individuals who participate in the dance.

According to Zebec (2007) and Foley (2016), applied ethnochoreology involves placing the knowledge of the scholar at the service of the community.

Foley (2016, p. 632) states that ethnochoreologists ‘can place importance on the human, social and cultural aspects that comprise dance and the act of making and performing dance’.

Applied ethnochoreology, for Zebec (2007, p. 18), also entails understanding the aesthetics of a dance performance through the eyes of a particular audience or community at a specific time and place, as he states that ‘understanding the diverse aesthetic principles depending on difference in context and participants is more important than analysis of the content and structure of the performance’.

UNESCO and Ethnology

Because of their direct involvement in the field, their participation in events and their deep understanding of dance forms, ethnochoreologists, as explained by Seeger (2009) and in 2.2.1, are often consulted, through the ICTM, by UNESCO to review ICH submissions by nation-states.

Moreover, Zebec et al. (2015, p. 228) point out that the UNESCO recognition has made scholars involved in ‘ethnology, cultural anthropology, and folklore research’ much more prominent than they once were and that (ibid.) ‘ethnomusicologists and ethnochoreologists are frequently engaged as advisors and consultants by local communities or governing bodies . . . as agents and mediators between local communities and public administration or governing bodies’.

In addition, an international European masters programme in dance and cultural heritage, called Choreomumdus, was established in 2012, located in ethnochoreology and the anthropology of dance (Fossen, n.d.)

Ethnochoreology and Dance

The involvement of ethnochoreology with the decisions made by UNESCO in awarding ICH status to dance forms makes this discipline very relevant to my research.

Moreover, I find an ethnochoreological approach fitting for all the other aspects highlighted in this section i.e.:

  • the international and comparative approach, because of the transcultural nature of Egyptian raqs sharqi
  • the interdisciplinary and holistic approach to dance, because I wish to keep dance central to this research, whilst incorporating the wider socio-cultural context of the art form
  • interest towards the individual experiences of the performers, because of the connection between social structures and individual agency (which I will explore in more depth in Chapter 3)
  • use of both diachronic and synchronic aspects of research, as I have decided to look back at historical videos and sources of Egyptian raqs sharqi, to better understand the dance today
  • and the applied aspect and the focus on reflexivity because, as well as being a researcher, I am also a practitioner of Egyptian raqs sharqi, thus I need to be aware of my role, influence and unavoidable bias during this research.

In summary, the version of ethnochoreology that I will be working with and that will shape my research (drawing on the publications cited in this section), is that of: a synchronic and diachronic interdisciplinary approach to the study of dance, which focuses on both the form of the dance and the experiences of participants and their role in society.

In what follows, I will explore the recent literature on raqs sharqi, trying in particular, to extract information on the Egyptian style.

Next Page >> The discourse surrounding the transmission of cultural heritage.