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Heritage qualities

Introducing the Heritage Value in Raqs sharqi

Adopting a dialogical paradigm of heritage, according to which heritage is (Bodo, 2012, p. 182) ‘constantly questioned and rediscovered by individuals who breathe new life into it’, this section explicates the heritage value in raqs sharqi.

I focus, firstly, on how a body of traditions (including tangible and intangible elements) is built over time and how past, present and future are connected through heritage.

I draw from the idea, expressed by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995, p. 369) that ‘heritage produces something new in the present that has recourse to the past’ and that, as Howard posits (2010, p. 1), heritage is something that ‘people wish to save for the future’.

Moreover, I highlight what Smith (2012, p. 69) calls ‘uses of heritage’ as she argues that, ‘it is not the things or places that are themselves ‘heritage’, it is the uses that these things are put to that make them ‘heritage’’.

Heritage itself becomes a type of resource (as per Giddens’ Structuration Theory described in 3.6), which could be either allocative (giving power over objects) or authoritative (giving power over people).

This is particularly evident when heritage is commodified as explained, for instance, by Stepputat (2015) for tango, by Nikočević et al. (2012) for Croatian dances and by Munsi (2012) for chhau dance in India.

Cchau dance

Raqs Sharqi as Embodied Heritage

As raqs sharqi is embodied heritage, the first element, emerging from the video analysis, is the growth of movement traditions as new allokines and motifs are created, which are then imitated by following generations of dancers.

So, movements can be seen as a body of ‘habits’ (drawing on Merleau-Ponty), which each dancer incorporates as they acquire dance perceptually.

Moreover, these movements are influenced by Egyptian people’s habitus and dispositions (including the baladi/afrangi dialectic) which have a historical dimension as habitus is ‘embodied history’ (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 56).

How this embodied heritage is transmitted will be highlighted in more detail in 6.6, but two main channels are: artefacts and in person transmission via older generations of dancers.

Heritage Transmission Through Artefacts

In the first instance, dance/heritage becomes objectified in cultural artefacts such as movies, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, videos, books, magazines, photographs which become part of the heritage.

These mostly tangible objects carry the intangible values of heritage and the embodiment of dancers, even those who are no longer alive but are now part of the tradition.

They become part of the ‘objectified’ cultural capital that new dancers strive to obtain.

They also become authoritative resources, as they contain knowledge that allows practitioners who have these resources to be influential in the field.

Heritage Transmission Through Older Dancers

As for the in-person transmission, older dancers who were raqs sharqi icons in the past, such as Mona Said, Nagwa Fouad or Fifi Abdou, now teach worldwide and become carriers and embodiments of heritage.

Thus, practitioners the world over admire and respect them because of their age and experience.

These practitioners embody the tradition: as perceptual unities of body and mind; as embodied agents who hold cultural capital; and as embodied authoritative resources who influence others and also have the agency to both perpetuate a tradition and innovate.

Raqs Sharqi and Value via Egyptian Traditions

Another element which gives raqs sharqi heritage value is its rooting in Egyptian traditions.

Although raqs sharqi, as a specific genre emerged in the 1920s, its roots go back further in time, drawing from old Egyptian dance traditions (baladi, Ghawazee, folklore), associated with celebrations.

The tangible aspects of these traditions, the ‘allocative resources’ or ‘forms of transformative capacity’ (Giddens, 1984, p. 33), are traditional props (such as finger cymbals and the assaya).

Another part of the raqs sharqi tradition, which cannot be separated from the dance, is music.

This is Egyptian music that has been associated with the dance through their concomitant use in Egyptian movies and TV shows.

Moreover, some of these songs were specially written for raqs sharqi dancers, in particular for Nagwa Fouad and Soheir Zaki, thus further consolidating this connection.

Regarding the uses of raqs sharqi as a form of heritage, one of these uses was political.

Raqs sharqi (during its heyday, between the 1950s and mid-1990s) and folklore dance were used to represent Egyptian culture on the world stage.

As Giurchescu (2001, p. 111) pointed out, dance is often used to ‘”package” political-ideological, educational, religious or economic messages’.

Unlike folklore though, raqs sharqi was never completely tamed to fit the ‘patriarchal and protective mode . . . common feature of state and elite interventions’ (Reed, 1998, p. 512). So, Egyptians always had, and still have, an ambivalent attitude towards raqs sharqi of love and shame.

Raqs sharqi is also used to provide a source of income, which has fuelled a niche industry in Egypt in producing costumes and props, organising festivals and teaching dance to foreigners.

In particular, the development of raqs sharqi as a niche cultural industry was fostered by the recognition of Egypt as the place where the roots of this dance are.

Raqs sharqi Authenticity and Differentiation

The key to understanding the reasons why raqs sharqi heritage is appreciated outside of Egypt lies in the discourse around this dance form.

This overlaps with the authenticity discourse, as many of the elements that make raqs sharqi authentic and differentiate it from other traditions, also generate its appeal.

In the authenticity discourse, it emerged how this dance encourages self-expression and agency and how some of the culturally influenced feelings associated with it are power, strength, relaxation, humour.

It is likely that these same elements also allow raqs sharqi to be perceived as a type of dance that promotes self-esteem.

Indeed, all my research participants mentioned improved confidence for all aspects of life as one of the reasons why they like raqs sharqi (but also bellydance in general). Joana, from the point of view of someone who teaches this dance, told me:

It gives me incredible pleasure. . . . To teach a dance that I know can change a person’s life for the better. To teach a dance that teaches you how to listen. How to know yourself, how to co-create with life, how to co-create with the music. How to discover your own creativity, how to discover your own fingerprint.

Joana (Researc volunteer on this PhD)

Cultural Roots

Raqs sharqi is associated with relaxation and pleasure, which derives from its cultural roots and movement qualities.

These create a feeling and a culturally influenced ‘corporeal schema’, which is gradually acquired by dancers as they learn and ‘kapiert’ the movements (3.4). Joana, comparing classical ballet, which she studied for several years, to raqs sharqi, recalls how in ballet:

You struggle with your body. You contradict it. . . . And I found in Egyptian dance the freedom and the pleasure, a dance that . . . makes you love your body, for its unique characteristics’.

Joana (PhD volunteer)

This is also what makes raqs sharqi suitable for older dancers, which is important in societies in which people live longer than ever.

Regarding age, Ann, for instance, said that raqs sharqi is ‘really good, if you do it properly, for . . . improving the posture . . . nobody realises that I’m 72’. Francesca, also stated that ‘this dance . . . teaches you to age, not only with grace, but with pride’.

Practitioners also enjoy Egyptian raqs sharqi because of its social roots, which makes it a socially inclusive dance, in which having fun is important.

For example, Lorna compared the fun and social atmosphere of Egyptian weddings where she performed, with the ceilidh dancing from Scotland, where she is from (Gow, 2006a, para. 2): ‘The enthusiasm is exactly the same. It’s all about the socialising aspect of the dance and the fun of it’.

The Social Aspect of Dance

The social aspect of the dance is also connected with it being a liminal and liminoid [1] activity, which allows practitioners temporary evasion and freedom from the constraints of social structures.

As Turner (1969, p. vii) points out, ‘these liminal areas of time and space . . . are open to the play of thought, feeling, and will’.

Moreover, Turner argues, liminal areas promote socialization and comradeship between neophytes, because ‘secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized’.

Dance is liminoid because it leads to what Schechner (2013, p. 72) calls a ‘temporary change’, which people experience for a short period of time to then be ‘dropped off where she or he entered’.

However, it can be argued that the change induced by raqs sharqi is not limited to the moment of performance, but it extends to the whole practitioner’s life.

Indeed, all my participants mentioned that they built friendships over sharing the activity of raqs sharqi, which provided them with spaces for evasion from everyday life and for fostering creativity.

Helen stresses that: ‘It’s a very giving dance. You can share it really nicely . . . with people . . . and there is . . . the dressing up, the getting together with other women’. Lorna emphasizes the ludic aspect:

I like that I can be everything that I am . . . in the dance, you get to be all of these things. And you also get to push them to extremes that maybe society doesn’t like either. So, you get to play more.

Lorna (Research voluteer for thsi PhD)

Although not much has explicitly emerged regarding how raqs sharqi affects its practitioners’ identity, it can be argued that the idea of sharing the dance together, as Helen mentioned, builds a group identity.

As Giurchescu (2001, p. 114) argues, ‘dance may function as identity symbol’ in a way that is ‘polysemic’ on the two levels of ‘personal identity’ and ‘group identity’.

Moreover, Lorna’s quotation highlights how practitioners can employ raqs sharqi’s liminality to explore their personal identity.

For Egyptian practitioners, it seems that raqs sharqi indeed provides them with ‘a sense of identity and continuity’ (UNESCO, 2003, p. 2).

For example, Randa (Samir, 2013) stated that: ‘When I’m travelling all over the world, I feel honoured. I feel I am messenger for my country’.

Some, however, are less optimistic, like Dina (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, p. 134), who claims to be the last Egyptian guardian of the raqs sharqi heritage.

This idea is probably also connected with a sense of nostalgia in today’s Egypt for the dancers of the Golden Ages, as noted in 5.7.6.

Next Page >> Transculturality and Heritage Discussion and Findings.


1 – The concept of liminoid was introduced by Turner (1982) later in his career and associated with the idea of leisure in modern societies.

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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.