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Dance heritage recommendations and UNESCO

Protecting ICH (Intangible Cultural Heritage)

The studies carried out in the field of ICH (see 2.2.1) support the idea that the inclusion in UNESCO’s lists brought recognition to two practices that were not very well known and that were considered marginal.

Hence, UNESCO’s recognition could potentially raise awareness of raqs sharqi and help fight the prejudices that still exist against it (particularly around the idea of bellydance and its sexualisation, both in Egypt and in other places).

In particular, since, as highlighted in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, the state of the economy has been very important throughout the history of Egyptian raqs sharqi for this dance form to thrive, bringing more awareness to it could benefit it by attracting more tourism and thus more funding.

Indeed, the economy and tourism have been mentioned several times in the ICH literature as reasons why a nation seeks ICH recognition for a practice (see 2.2.1)

Nations States and Heritage

At the same time though, because the ICH recognition has to be started by a nation-state, it is unlikely that it will be proposed by Egypt any time soon, given the ambivalent attitude of Egyptians towards this dance form, as highlighted in the course of this research.

Indeed, only recently, the Egyptian Tourism Authority, as reported by Al-Youm (2017), attracted controversy by using the image of a bellydance hip scarf to promote Egypt as a place where it is possible to buy such items.

Those who reacted to this idea argued that tourism in Egypt should be promoted by associating this country to its ancient monuments rather than to raqs sharqi.

As discussed in 2.2.1, the risks of ICH nominations include:

  • commodification
  • distortion
  • oversimplification
  • exploitation
  • nationalism
  • a top to down approach by the authorities
  • power struggles
  • freezing of heritage and cultural cleansing

Considering the position of raqs sharqi at the moment in Egyptian society, these risks are still too high for an ICH status recognition to be advisable for Egyptian raqs sharqi.

Moreover, individual agency has emerged as an element that is too important for the practitioners of this dance and official protection of the tradition could feel too restrictive.

The Issue of Transculturality and Belly Dance

Another important reason why it is impractical to propose ICH status for Egyptian raqs sharqi is its transculturality.

However, this does not make it impossible as long as, drawing on Stepputat’s (2015) study on tango, the nomination dossier makes it clear that Egyptian raqs sharqi is now practised worldwide and that the nomination covers Egyptian style specifically, rather than raqs sharqi in general.

However, this raises the critical question of who should safeguard a transcultural practice such as Egyptian raqs sharqi. Would it be possible for a practice to be safeguarded through UNESCO without the support of a nation-state? For the moment, it does not seem possible.

Thus, even if an official protected status turned out to be beneficial for the transcultural practice of Egyptian raqs sharqi, who would safeguard it? It seems that the role of communities is even more critical in such a scenario.

To finish, drawing on Bakka’s (2015), Pelegrini’s (2008) and Zebec’s (2007), suggestions on the role of the experts (i.e. they should support communities but not impose their opinions), I suggest a staged approach that could be adopted for the safeguarding of ICH (including Egyptian raqs sharqi, if it ever was given ICH status).

This approach involves all stakeholders to participate on equal footing, in order to minimize risks to heritage.

A Model for Safeguarding Intangible Heritage

Moidel for safeguarding intangible heritage
Figure 34 – Model for Safeguarding Intangiel Heritage and Living heritage safeguarding guidelines – by Dr Valeria Lo Iacono (2019)

Figure 34 represents the process that, I propose, could be used as a guideline for safeguarding living cultural heritage.

In the inner circle, I have drawn four stages (implemented by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, curators, practitioners and stakeholders [1]) that feed off each other and they are:

Identify

This stage includes the identification and analysis of a variety of elements, such as:

  • Core elements that constitute that particular heritage; for example, for a dance genre, these will include dance movements, feelings, props, music and a variety of other elements that constitute that dance, including what could be considered ‘authentic’.
  • Stakeholders: the people involved and interested in this heritage and why they are interested in it, what they stand to gain from its safeguarding and/or practice.
  • How stakeholders’ benefits from this heritage can be maximized to increase their capital (cultural, social and/or financial).
  • Threats and opportunities: such as, what can threaten the continuation of that heritage and under which conditions it thrives.
  • Channels of transmission.
  • Diffusion: social settings and locations in which the heritage is practiced.

Curate

  • This stage includes activities such as historical reconstruction, searching for sources and materials, documenting and archiving.

Share

  • For example, through performances, events, exhibitions, videos, teaching and publications.

Promote

  • This includes marketing activities to make more people aware of that heritage so that, for example, some people would visit a destination if they knew that they could practise, learn or watch a certain heritage activity.

Public engagement occupies the external circle because the public (i.e. a variety of stakeholders) would be involved in every stage of the process. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) (no date, para. 3) defines public engagement as:

The myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.

National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) (no date

Public engagement can include five different levels of interaction, as listed by the State of Victoria (2013):

  • Information – for example: media releases, community education, brochures, websites.
  • Consultation – this can include: surveys, interviews, focus groups, public meetings.
  • Involvement – it includes activities that involve stakeholders in the decision-making process.
  • Collaboration – in which ownership is shared between stakeholders and researchers and/or policymakers, such as through committees.
  • Empowerment – in which communities share responsibility for making decisions.

The safeguarding process could engage the public in any of the ways listed above, throughout the four stages of the model shown in Figure 34. This research has covered aspects of all four stages from the model.

Stages 1 (identification) and 2 (curation) have been covered by reconstructing the history of Egyptian raqs sharqi, using a variety of sources through an ethnochoreological approach.

Stages 3 (sharing) and 4 (promotion) have been dealt with through this written thesis, the journal articles published as a result of this research and the conference presentations given, all of which can help disseminate knowledge and raise awareness about Egyptian raqs sharqi.

Bridging the Gaps Between Cultures Through Knowledge Exchange

Finally, drawing on the above considerations (of people being central and of public engagement) and on Smith’s (2006) concept of ‘uses of heritage’, I have started exploring the possibility of how dance/heritage (and ICH more generally) could be used to bridge gaps between cultures through knowledge exchange, as also suggested by Wong (2013) with his study on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Dance as Medium for Intercultural Dialogue.

ICH, for example, could be used to bring people from different communities together (such as locals and refugees) who have interests in common and are keen to learn from each other in relation to their cultural interests.

As a result, I have started laying down the foundations for a project called ‘Dance beyond borders’, which would involve social forms of traditional dances to bring communities together.

his is still at the exploratory stage and many issues will undoubtedly arise along the way (such as cultural appropriation), but it is a possibility worth exploring.

In the next section, I will conclude this thesis by identifying what I hope the contribution of this study to knowledge has been.

Next Page >> Contribtion to Research.

Footnotes

1 – I have used the word ‘stakeholders’ here in the most general sense (not just connected to business) of ‘a person, or group having a stake, or interest, in the success of an enterprise, business, movement, etc’ (Collins English Dictionary, no date).

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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.