– Post written by Dr Valeria Lo Iacono

Dance as living cultural heritage
Model for living cultural heritage


I have written this post, in order to summarise and explain in simple words the article ‘Beyond Binarism: Exploring a Model of Living Cultural Heritage for Dance’, which I have co-written with my PhD supervisor Dr David Brown, and which has been published by Edinburgh University Press in the Journal Dance Research.

The paper is very theoretical, but also topical because it deals with some of the issues raised by the idea of considering dance and other types of physical cultures as forms of cultural heritage.

This paper is only a starting point to deal with the questions raised by seeing dance as cultural heritage, but it will hopefully pave the way for further discussions and interventions.

Model of living heritage by Dr Valeria Lo Iacono
Model of living heritage by Dr Valeria Lo Iacono

The starting point and inspiration for the paper is the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

I find this convention a very important statement on the part of a big organisation such as UNESCO, to finally acknowledge the fact that heritage is not only made up of material elements, monuments and buildings, but people, skills and traditions are important too, even when they do not lead to the creation of big monuments.

So, with the 2003 convention, UNESCO has officially moved from a materialistic vision of heritage, to one which is more democratic and holistic. There are many activities and traditions currently in the UNESCO’s lists of intangible heritage.

For example, just to give you an idea:

  • the Cherry Festival in Sefrou, Morocco
  • Shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium
  • the Mediterranean diet
  • baile chino from Chile
  • flamenco from Spain
  • tango from Argentina
  • capoeira circle from Brazil
  • chovqan, a traditional horse-riding game from Azerbaijan
  • Wayang Puppet Theatre from Indonesia
  • the Andean cosmovision of the Kallawaya and many more.

1972 and 2003 UNESCO’s Definitions of Cultural Heritage

In the paper we quoted the two main definitions of cultural heritage by UNESCO, to compare the shift in attitude. The first definition was included in the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the second definition in the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

There have been various recommendations, charters, and resolutions in between, and the process of establishing the 2003 Convention was gradual.

However, we have focused on these two as being the two milestones since conventions are rules that UNESCO members have to comply to as law (as opposed to recommendations, charters, and resolutions which are recommended but not mandatory).

The 1972 definition of cultural heritage states:

For the purpose of this Convention, the following shall be considered as “cultural heritage”: monuments … groups of buildings … of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science; sites … of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view. (UNESCO 1972, 2)

Mexican folklore dance

Article 2 of the 2003 definition defines intangible cultural heritage

As 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.

This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

From looking at the two definitions above you will notice a clear shift between material heritage, static and of ‘universal value’ (1972), to a more fluid concept where people are central and that includes the ideas of identity, continuity, and creativity (2003).

However, the definition of intangible heritage also leads to many questions, which opens the path for many discussions that will need several journal articles and books to cover.

Living Heritage and Overcoming the Tangible/Intangible Divide

In this paper, we have focused specifically on two questions. The first one being: why do UNESCO use the label of intangible?

By doing so, they are implying a neat distinction between tangible (such as monumental) heritage and intangible heritage.

However, it is not really possible to separate tangible from intangible elements in heritage.

The 2003 UNESCO definition itself mentions artifacts, objects, and spaces as part of intangible heritage.

Moreover, in particular for dance, sport, and other physical activities, the body is central and it cannot be separated from the activity itself.

So, these types of heritage are embodied and, because of this, not intangible at all.

The second question revolves around the idea of change and creativity. How do we connect heritage, which implies continuity and tradition, with the fact that intangible heritage promotes creativity, which implies change?

In dance, for example, there are traditions that we follow and recreate every time we dance, but practitioners are also creative in their approach and because of this they introduce changes.

So, in dance change tends to happen much more quickly and widely than it does for monumental heritage.

Hence, in order to overcome these binarisms of tangible/intangible and continuity/creativity, we have proposed instead a model of living heritage, based on the premise that ‘intangible heritage… is alive’ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 53).

The idea is to move from a dualism (two divided and distinct entities) to a duality (two aspects of the same reality) of tangible/intangible, to finally overcome any binarism. (The meaning of dualism and duality here refers to the meaning given to these words by Giddens in his structuration theory).

To support the model of living heritage for dance, we chose three theories, all of which seek to overcome a dualism and aim for a duality instead.

These three theories cover elements that are significant for our model of heritage and that are joined together to give a holistic picture of living heritage.

The first theory is Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to overcome the separation between body and mind; the second one is Bourdieu’s theory of practice, which connects the way in which individuals act in practice and through their body in society, with culture and society itself; the third one is Giddens’ structuration theory, which connects the structures of society with the agency of individuals who live in that society.

From the field of dance, we started from Adshead’s model of dance analysis, which identifies dancers, movements, visual settings, and aural elements (sound) as the four elements to analyze in dance.

We then built on this model and added other elements, such as artifacts, time, space, people other than dancers (i.e. choreographers and audience), emotions and feelings, conventions, taste, society, and culture.

The aim was to demonstrate how all these elements, some of which can be considered tangible and some intangible, are all indissolubly linked together and interact in a continuous and dynamic dialogue, resulting in dance as it takes place in the moment of performance.

Performance includes any time when the dance is danced; so, not just theatrical performance but classes, social events, rehearsals, or video recordings of dance.

Nubian dance
Nubian dance in Luxor, Egypt

Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and the Unity of Body and Mind

According to Merlau-Ponty, body, and mind, rather than being an arbitrary amalgamation of object and subject, are one entity all the time.

Moreover, we learn through our bodies, developing bodily habits (this is particularly true with regards to dance and sport, but there are a lot of other things we learn in a physical fashion and we comprehend through movement, such as typing, driving a car, playing an instrument just to mention three examples).

The phenomenological union of body and mind is the first step towards a union of tangible and intangible because it leads to the conclusion that the human being is a ‘physical embodiment of culture and heritage… [thus] human heritage is always and at once tangible and intangible’ (Kearney, 2008, 211).

The elements of time and space, which we have also considered as important in dance and intangible heritage in general, are also explained by Merleau-Ponty as connected with the body, through movement.

Movement allows us to embrace space and time, rather than just being passively submitted to it.

The union of body and mind, which Merleau-Ponty theorized back in 1945, is now supported by modern neuroscience, for which ‘body and brain bond’ (Damasio 2012, 21).

Mirror neurons can help explain the phenomenon of kinaesthetic empathy, which can lead to sharing emotions communicated through movement, in an embodied way.

The sharing of emotions is important in dance and an example can be found in the concept of tarab (ecstasy, enchantment in Arabic) in Egyptian dance and music (Bordelon, 2013), whereby the dancer can express visually the emotions in the music and transmit them to the audience.

These emotions are generated by traditional music, which is part of Egyptian cultural heritage, thus the dancers bring heritage to life through movement and tarab.

Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice – Physical Habitus and Culture

Although Merlau-Ponty’s theory is great in helping us to overcome the division between body and mind and therefore connecting the intangible with the tangible, in his theory the cultural elements, although they are implied, are not made explicit.

Bourdieu’s theory of practice has elements that bring culture into the living heritage picture.

Bourdieu did extensive research in the field, as an anthropologist, so all his insights came from real-life observations of social events.

Also, he was aware of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas and was probably influenced by them to a certain extent. According to Bourdieu, individuals learn to act in certain ways conditioned by the environment in which they grow up and live, without being consciously aware of it.

We act through our bodies in a way that is habitual; hence Bourdieu calls this disposition ‘habitus’. Because habitus is created by society, we learn how to act in a way that is culturally shaped and we transmit habitus from one generation to the other, that is why Bourdieu calls habitus ‘embodied history’ (1990, 56).

The idea of habitus connects the tangible with the intangible because habitus is physical but also an expression of society and culture.

Two more elements in Bourdieu’s theory that help us connect tangible with intangible are the ideas of field and taste. Field is any area of society in which we are involved.

For example, if you are a doctor, you act in the medical science field; if you are a writer you field is literature; if you are a ballet dancer, you move in the field of ballet.

The field connects individuals with society because, as we move in a field, we have to play by certain rules dictated by the traditions of that field.

As we do so, we act like in a game, where we play our cards, in order to increase our capital (which could consist of money, prestige, knowledge). Taste is influenced by the society, the culture and the class to which individuals belong and it may only partially become conscious.

Applied to dance, this means that the people who are involved in dance (dancers, choreographers, audience) are the tangible elements who act according to the rules of the field, through performance, execution, production, and appreciation.

The rules of the field, the taste, and the conventions (such as the movement vocabulary) are the intangible elements, which are, however, embodied by people.

Giddens’ Structuration Theory – Structures, Rules, Resources and Agency

We have included Giddens’ structuration theory in the model of living heritage, in order to help us solve the opposition of traditions versus creativity and change.

Similarly to Bourdieu, Giddens sees society as formed by structures (all the abstract elements of society) and individuals, with individuals connecting to structures through praxis (action).

Giddens also argues that individuals do not create social structures but we just reproduce them. However, for Giddens, agency (the ability of individuals to take charge and make changes) is essential for the existence of society.

This is why he sees structures and agency as a duality, the two faces of the same coin, rather than as two separate entities. Structures and agency are connected through the individual’s engagement with rules and resources.

These are part of social structures, and this is why, for individuals, structures can be both limiting and empowering.

For example, for a dancer, the movement vocabulary of a certain genre can be seen as rules that limit what a dancer can do within that genre.

However, that same movement vocabulary is also a tool, a resource, that allows the dancer to express him/herself through the language of that genre.

Because for Giddens structures are both internal and external to individuals and individuals are embodied entities, we can say that they are both tangible and intangible.

The duality of structures and agency is very relevant in dance (and other physical cultures), because dance practitioners, even when they follow the rules of a genre, they can be creative and innovative.

This can lead to change within a dance tradition, which can be more or less drastic depending on what the conventions of the genre allow.

Artefacts as Resources

Giddens’ structuration theory also helps us understand the role of artifacts.

These can be considered as tangible resources because they are connected to the culture and society that produces them and the people who use them.

Also, Merleau-Ponty’s ideas further help to support this point, as he argued that the objects we manipulate become extensions of our own bodies. Burkitt (1999) builds on Merleau-Ponty’s idea, by arguing that not only artifacts are built in a certain way because they need to suit the human bodies so we can manipulate these objects, but objects also influence the way we move and act in the world, once we have learned how to manipulate them.

For dance, artifacts can be things such as costumes, props, technologies used to record dance, stage settings.

All these items are strictly connected to the human body and they are at once tangible and infused with intangible elements.

Conclusions and Living Heritage Definition

The theories discussed so far, help us to see dance and other forms of intangible heritage as a unity of tangible and intangible elements that continuously interact.

Hence, embodied people, emotions, cultural conventions, agency, artifacts, taste, all contribute to form heritage and they are all elements of the same entity, which cannot be separated.

The human body in this model is central, because all the elements we have mentioned connect to it, in one way or another. Moreover, heritage is fluid because it can change through time and space due to individuals’ agency and also due to changes in society to which heritage needs to adapt if it is to survive.

We argue that the expression living heritage, better reflects this multiple and complex nature of heritage, rather than the label of intangible. The definition of given in the paper is that living heritage

is embodied by individuals, in connection with the artifacts they produce and use and the environment they interact with and as expressed through practices, activities, and performances.

Living cultural heritage is also constituted by socially and culturally influenced traditions and conventions, as well as by the feelings and emotions of people and the way they relate to this heritage, including taste and perceptions.

Heritage and human beings are indissolubly connected and continuously shape each other in an open-ended fluid dialogue. (Lo Iacono and Brown, 2016, 100)

For dance, a visual representation could be the figure below, which shows all the tangible and intangible elements discussed so far, overlapping and interacting within the dynamic sphere of time and space.

Living Heritage Dance

This model of heritage can be applied to other forms of physical heritage, such as sports, marital arts or other ritualized physical activities. The implications of seeing heritage in such a dynamic and holistic way is that, in order to protect it, we need to approach it from many different angles.

For example, we need to document artifacts and objects; record activities; interview people; engage with the communities that can keep the heritage alive to see how best they can be motivated to continue a tradition; examine the socio-cultural and economic background in which heritage develops to see what the limitations and opportunities are for its continuation.

All these activities need not be conducted in isolation from each other, but as parts of the same project and as interconnected.


Lo Iacono, Valeria, and David H. K. Brown. 2016. “Beyond Binarism: Exploring a Model of Living Cultural Heritage for Dance.” The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 34(1):84-105. doi: 10.3366/drs.2016.0147.

To see the references cited on this page and the complete version of the article, please click here to download a Pdf, which is the author manuscript version. For the official version of the paper, as published on Dance Research, go to https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/drs.2016.0147

Contact Valeria

For further information, you can contact me on valeria (at) worlddanceheritage.org or through the contact form on this site.

Alternatively, you can find me on Linkedin or ResearchGate

Please feel free to contact me for:

  • Collaborations in the fields of: intangible heritage, dance, heritage, and creative tourism.
  • Speaking at conferences and symposia on the topics of intangible heritage, dance, and physical cultures.
  • If you are looking for guest lecturers to teach in the fields of intangible cultural heritage, dance as a form of heritage, hybridism in dance, sociological theories of embodiment applied to dance, sport, and/or intangible heritage, online research methods.
  • I am in the final stages of my PhD in dance and cultural heritage in Cardiff Metropolitan University and writing up my thesis, and currently looking for a job as a researcher or academic in the field of heritage. So, please do contact me if you are aware of any opportunities.