Preserving heritage

Elements that Influence Heritage

In the dance analysis, a series of elements have emerged that can influence heritage and encourage its safeguarding, preservation or threaten it.

For living heritage, these elements are socio-cultural since, as Ashworth (2011, p. 2) argues, heritage is ‘a condition deliberately created in response to current political, social or economic needs’.

Therefore, heritage can be understood through the lens of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, which is summarised by Bourdieu with the equation (1984, p. 101) ‘[(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice’.

Practice, in this case, can be identified as the transmission/safeguarding of raqs sharqi.

The field is raqs sharqi as a field of cultural production, which is also enclosed within the bigger field of society as a whole, since the work of art is, as Bourdieu and Johnson (1993, p. 37) state, ‘a manifestation of the field as a whole’.

Thus, the field of raqs sharqi is influenced by the bigger field of society (or transcultural societies) through its agents, practice, capital and habitus.

Habitus and Raqs sharqi

Habitus is produced by the structures of a particular environment and is a system of (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 72) ‘structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices’. I have identified the following forms of habitus affecting raqs sharqi:

  • Religion, morals, social values;
  • Lifestyles and taste;
  • Transculturality.

Religious Impact on Heritage

Religion, for instance, is reflected in increasing conservativism in Egypt (which also threatened Ghawazee dance in Upper Egypt).

Luna (Esposito, 2012b, para. 10) reports that ‘since the fall of Mubarak, religious forces have attacked culture in ways that Egypt has never seen before’.

Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, p. 178) and Raqia Hassan (El Safy, 1995) both stated that it is not possible to open a raqs sharqi school in Egypt and that dancers, if they want to teach raqs sharqi in a school, have to pretend that their dance school is a health club.

However, at the same time, rituals support raqs sharqi as this genre has been associated with weddings throughout its history.

As Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, pp. 58–59) comments, ‘our dances are the echo of our civilization, where their sensuality accompanies the important moments of our lives’.


More generally, morals have always influenced the attitude towards Raqs sharqi:

  • from Mahmoud Reda trying to (Shay, 1999, p. 39) ‘mask the very overt sensuality for which Egyptian dance is famous’.
  • to families trying to stop their daughters from becoming professional dancers (for example Mona el Said’s father who wanted to kill her).

Joana expressed this duplicity of Egyptian people’s attitude towards Raqs sharqi by stating that:

…this is Egyptian language . . . instinctively they know. They don’t know mentally about dance . . . It’s forbidden by God it’s haram . . . But instinctively . . . it’s part of the way they live life’.

Joanna (Research participant for this PhD)

In the West, for example in the USA, there is the same ambivalence towards Raqs sharqi.

For some people, it is still controversial (or at least it was until recently). Gamal (1999, para. 12) recalls how ‘the first time Dahlena tried to put an ad in an American newspaper for dance classes, the Chicago Tribune refused because they felt that it was indecent’.

However, it was in the USA that the social change brought by feminism and sexual liberation encouraged the diffusion of belly dance from the 1960s.


Taste can influence the support or lack of it for a certain type of heritage, as it happened in Egypt from the mid-1990s when the taste of the Egyptians upper classes changed and they became more interested in going to restaurants or clubbing than going to watch Raqs sharqi shows.

Finally, transculturality can also be considered a type of habitus, since, as Welsch (1999, p. 198) posits, ‘lifestyles no longer end at the borders of national cultures, but go beyond these’, thus today ‘we are cultural hybrids’ (ibid).

The transcultural habitus can have a positive influence on Raqs sharqi, as it encourages its transmission across the world.

At the same time though, there is the risk of diluting the heritage by cutting ties with its place of origin, thus losing sight of Raq’s sharqi identity and what it makes it different from other dance genres.

Capital and Impact

With regards to capital, the most influential form impacting on heritage has emerged as being economic, of which there are numerous examples in the dance analysis.

For instance, the objectification and commercialization of heritage through selling artifacts and promoting festivals and trips limits the availability of heritage only to those who have economic capital to invest.

However, economic capital also helps heritage to survive as it gives artists the means to make a living, and thus dedicate themselves completely to the promotion and continuation of Raqs sharqi heritage.

Another example is the economic recession in Egypt and the lack of tourists from the Gulf in the mid-90s, which led to a decline of investments in Raqs sharqi.

Within the wider field of society, there are rules and players who can impact on the field of Raqs sharqi heritage. Politics, with its rules and players, can have a huge impact on heritage.

For instance, in 1952, the Egyptian Revolution led to renewed pride in Egyptian arts, including dance, which the government-supported. Society impacts on heritage through processes of structuration (based on Giddens’ Structuration Theory [3.6]), which generate authoritative rules that agents tend to follow.

It seems though that, in a wealthy economic environment, there is more space for the use and development of resources and for social agents to have the opportunities to create and innovate.

A number of dancers would have drawn on experiences of dance from other traditions, cultures, and locations and/or from the influences of affluent middle-class Cairo.

These elements provide some dancers with different sets of dispositions and resources with which to innovate.

Competition and Forces in the Management and Control of Heritage

Competition is the struggle between players in the field of cultural production, in order to acquire capital.

As Bourdieu (1993, p. 30) posits, ‘the literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces’.

These struggles can impact on heritage. The case of the Ghawazee dancers in Upper Egypt is a clear illustration of struggles in the field, impacting on heritage, when the Ghawazee had to increasingly compete with dancers from Cairo, to perform for tourists in locations such as Luxor.

This competition reduced work opportunities for the Ghawazee and it endangered the survival of their dance. Similarly, foreign dancers compete with Egyptian dancers in Cairo.

This, especially at a time when there is less paid work available, can be a threat for local performers.

However, competition can also increase the quality of the dance, by encouraging dancers to train harder. Lorna commented, for example, that foreign dancers in Cairo:

Have pushed the bar . . . when the foreign dancers came back [after a time when they were banned from performing in Egypt] it wasn’t enough to be pretty and shapely, you had to have the steps and be prepared to sweat and work, as well . . . I think that the foreign dancers pushed that, which is good in some ways but it has changed the dance.

Lorna (Research participant in this PhD)

Social Agency and Shaping Heritage

Finally, social actors’ agency can shape the way in which heritage develops. Bourdieu (1993, p. 32) argued that ‘change in the space of literary or artistic possibles is the result of change in the power relation which constitutes the space of positions’.

I agree that this partly explains change, as new generations of dancers want to distinguish themselves from previous generations.

However, I propose that change is also driven by creativity and the will to innovate for merely aesthetic reasons, as Sheets-Johnstone suggests (2015, p. XXIX), creativity ‘lies at the heart of dance’.

This creative impulse generates what Giddens (1984) would call a ‘duality’ between the structures (made up of rules and resources, such as the dance traditions) and the agents (i.e. the artists), so that the two can never be completely separated as they are bridged by practice (i.e. the act of performing).

Survival of Living Heritage

The survival of living heritage is also dependant on its flexibility and ability to adapt to changes in society and the environment.

According to Giurchescu (2001, p. 112), dance has a series of semiotic levels, which include a:

  • transcultural level (feelings, moods, intentions)
  • conceptual level (acquired knowledge about dance)
  • ritual level (with symbolic significance)
  • social interaction level and an artistic level.

From the example that Giurchescu (ibid) gives of căluş, an old ritual from Romania (inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 (UNESCO, no date a)), it emerges that the more levels living heritage has, the more likely it is to survive.

Giurchescu (ibid) states that, in the areas in which căluş had only a ritual level, connected to its healing function, the practice disintegrated once there was no longer an interest in its ritual meaning.

However, in other areas, căluş presented a more complex structure involving music and dance, thus it had an artistic level, which attracted people even after the healing ritual had become obsolete.

Hence, Giurchescu (ibid) observes, ‘the capacity of căluş for symbolic transformation lies in its polysemic character which ensures the căluş existence in a constantly changing society’.

Similarly, the Ghawazee dance is under threat in upper Egypt as it has not adapted to changes in society whereas Raqs sharqi, as Nearing posits (2012b, para. 36), ‘is an eclectic, ever-evolving form, and as such can absorb interruptions’.

One of the reasons for the success of Raqs sharqi is its polysemic value, as a dance that is associated with celebrations but also pure entertainment, and which is culturally and socially hybrid.

Based on the observations made in the course of this thesis, it can be argued that Raqs sharqi includes all the semiotic levels identified by Giurchescu (2001): transcultural (feelings and emotions); conceptual; ritual; social, and artistic.

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