Last Updated on January 7, 2023
The main purpose of my study was to identify the cultural heritage characteristics of Egyptian raqs sharqi and evaluate if it can be considered heritage and how it locates itself within the field of ICH.
The objectives, in order to achieve the above aim, were:
- To identify what ICH is, how it is managed, how the ICH recognition is achieved and who benefits from it. I will do this through a review of literature in the field of ICH.
- To position Egyptian raqs sharqi (as a form of transcultural dance) within culture and society. I will achieve this objective by reviewing literature from the areas of dance studies and sociology.
Meeting the Objectives
Objectives 1 and 2 were achieved through readings (around the topics of dance, cultural heritage and Egyptian raqs sharqi), which formed the base of the literature review (Chapter 2) and generated sensitizing concepts and an initial set of questions.
In the process, I adopted a dialogical paradigm of heritage and an ethnochoreological approach.
This initial set of questions led me to engage with philosophically-informed sociological theories, in order to help me make sense of such a complex field (and because of the interdisciplinary nature of dance research), thus leading me to the conceptual framework of Living Heritage (Chapter 3).
1. To gain a deeper understanding of Egyptian Raqs sharqi by analyzing videos of this dance form. This will enable me to trace a history of Egyptian Raqs sharqi, identify its movements, and evaluate what consolidated tradition exists, which can be considered a cultural asset.
2. To acquire an insight into how Egyptian Raqs sharqi, as an expression of culture, is understood today by an international community of practitioners other than myself. In order to do this, I will interview experienced practitioners from across the world and I will analyze texts (including books, documentaries on DVD, blogs, websites, and online discussions from forums and social media).
Emerging Research Questions
As a result of the process undertaken to achieve aims 1 and 2, a series of research questions emerged, to which I have provided (highly plausible) responses in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6.
These chapters were written as a result of my data collection and analysis, which fulfilled objectives 3 and 4 by allowing me to:
- reconstruct a version of the history of Egyptian raqs sharqi (with its movements and traditions), from the beginning of the 20th century.
- and to analyze the current discourse on the culture surrounding this dance from the point of view of an international community of practitioners.
I will summarise my findings (in the form of answers to my research questions) here, starting with the sub-questions and ending with the main question.
Given its transcultural status, what is ‘authentic’ Egyptian raqs sharqi?
This question is addressed throughout Chapter 5 and in section 6.2.
Three points are worth highlighting though, in addition to what has already been discussed.
The first point is that the understanding of authenticity adopted in this thesis, following from the literature review, is the dialogical idea of fluid authenticity.
That is, what is considered authentic tends to adapt to the needs and taste of different audiences at different historical moments, thus authenticity tends to change and this allows traditions to stay alive and relevant. Moreover, the authenticity uncovered in this thesis relates to the discourse that exists within an international community of practitioners, during a specific timeframe (i.e. approximately the first decade of the 21st century).
The second point is the transcultural nature of raqs sharqi and how this might modify the concept of authenticity, in that it is possible to identify certain elements of authenticity, even in relation to a transcultural type of heritage.
Throughout the history of raqs sharqi, certain ideas seem to reappear and be reinforced in the discourse of raqs sharqi, even as it is transmitted across different cultures and locations.
The third point is the relationship between tangible and intangible elements of heritage in the raqs sharqi authenticity discourse.
From the data, it has emerged that the different elements that compose dance (most of which comprise transcultural components) all contribute to authenticity.
The intangible elements (particularly the emotions) seem more central, for raqs sharqi practitioners and informed spectators than the tangible ones (such as costumes and artifacts).
The movement vocabulary (another intangible element) is also relevant as, from the videos, a specific set of movements can be recognized.
Moreover, the human body is central as a place in which many of the tangible (artifacts such as props and costumes, the physicality of the human body) and intangible (emotions, sense of traditions, movement vocabulary, taste, class, and agency) elements converge.
In terms of what Raqs sharqi is, based on my findings, it can be described as a socially hybrid and transcultural dance genre (although rooted in Egyptian social dance traditions, of which Raqs sharqi is the performance version), which:
- values improvisation more than choreography
- is traditionally danced solo and to live music
- has a set of core movements with many variations
- values the dancer’s individuality and capacity of self-expression and values the connection with the audience. This is summarised in Table 44, which represents raqs sharqi as a form of living heritage and is based on Figure 5.
What makes Egyptian raqs sharqi worth safeguarding as a form of cultural heritage, in and outside of Egypt?
This question is addressed in 6.3.
In particular though (and this connects with Smith’s  ‘uses of heritage’, discussed in 2.8), Raqs sharqi is important for people who are engaged in this practice because of the influence of this dance genre on the well-being of its practitioners (both professional and amateur).
From the textual sources and the interviews, it has become clear that practitioners feel empowered by this dance, because of its intangible qualities (which are also important for the authenticity discourse), such as creativity, agency (in the sense of inspiring expressivity and being true to oneself), relaxed feeling, fun and sense of power, but also sensuality (which helps dancers feel at ease with their bodies).
All these characteristics of Raqs sharqi derive from the specific socio-cultural environment in which it originated.
How do tangible and intangible elements of dance/heritage interact?
This question is not addressed in a specific section, but it is evident throughout the findings chapters and it is also part of the responses to the other questions.
For instance, the dance analysis shows the role that both tangible and intangible elements played in Raqs sharqi history. In this respect, it is worth noting how both tangible and intangible elements are involved in the historical process of Raqs sharqi heritage development.
Egyptian raqs sharqi has its roots in Egyptian local traditions, which include a variety of feelings, traditions, artifacts and music.
As it developed (from the 1920s onwards), it incorporated new transcultural elements both tangible and intangible in the movement vocabulary, music, costumes, and in its values and representation.
Certain dancers (as highlighted in the dance analysis) contributed to the creation of Raqs sharqi heritage by upholding traditions, while at the same time introducing innovations in movements, feelings, and artifacts.
Technology also played a big role in the creation and distribution of new artifacts, such as videos (through cinema, TV, DVDs, the Internet), books, and magazines.
These new artifacts, which can also be considered as heritage in their own rights, also contributed towards the consolidation of a wider body of heritage.
Also, authenticity, transmission, heritage qualities and value, and the change/tradition dialectic are all the result of the tangible/intangible interaction, encompassing all the elements of dance.
Table 44 also shows the tangible and intangible elements of Raqs sharqi as per the model of living heritage.
How is the dialectic between change and traditions negotiated by exponents of raqs sharqi (=narrower) / those involved in the field of raqs sharqi (=broader)?
Throughout the dance analysis, and then in 6.5, it has become clear that there is a continuous dialectic between tradition and innovation.
In 2.4, I mentioned a ‘transmission continuum’ from an ‘essentialist’ way of transmitting a dance tradition to a ‘dialogical’ one. Some genres, such the English folkloric dances studied by Buckland (2001), occupy a more essentialist position in that practitioners prefer to adhere as strictly as possible to traditions.
Other dance forms, such as postmodern dance (Daly et al., 1992), tend toward the dialogical extreme, as they seek innovation. Egyptian Raqs sharqi seems to occupy an intermediate position, as there are traditions that dancers draw upon, but innovation and individual agency is one of the pillars of this dance (also highlighted in the authenticity discourse).
Practitioners connect themselves to the old heritage of the dance but also admire dancers who can innovate.
Also, there seem to be two main groups: dancers who keep closer to traditions (for instance, Tahia Carioca and Soheir Zaki) and those who like to push boundaries (such as Nagwa Fouad and Dina).
However, innovation can happen in many ways (movement vocabulary, use of music, feelings, expressions, props and costumes, a combination of tangible and intangible elements) and also in subtle ways, so that even the most traditionalist of dancers can innovate (for example, the traditionalist Soheir Zaki was the first dancer to perform to Oum Kalthoum songs).
How is Egyptian raqs sharqi transmitted across time, space and cultures?
It has become evident through the dance analysis, and further highlighted in 6.6, how transmission happens through a variety of channels and the role that mobilities (Urry, 2007) and different forms of capital play in the transmission process.
Transmission of knowledge happens through in-person teaching (sharing the same physical space) and via a variety of artifacts (books and videos supported by technologies such as videotapes, DVDs, and computers).
Capital, in different forms (embodied, economic, cultural, social), is essential in accessing the knowledge that allows people to learn the dance.
This capital is connected to what Urry (2007) calls ‘mobilities’ of people, artifacts, ideas through a variety of channels, which is connected to agents’ networking capital.
Some examples of networking capital are the:
- travels of Badia Masabni around the world to gather inspiration; the Middle Eastern diaspora to the USA
- travel of non-Egyptian practitioners from around the world to Egypt to learn from the country of origin of the dance
- travel of Egyptian practitioners outside of Egypt to teach and the widespread communication of ideas through the Internet.
From a dialogical perspective, what challenges are involved in the safeguarding of raqs sharqi as a form of transcultural, living and embodied heritage?
This question has been addressed through the dance analysis (Chapter 5) and in section 6.7.
What I found was that there is a multitude of factors that impact on the safeguarding of raqs sharqi (and transcultural/living/embodied heritage more in general).
- the understanding of authenticity; transculturality (which can be an opportunity as well as a threat for heritage).
- transmission (of dance/heritage across time and space) and the dialectic between change and traditions (which is continuously renegotiated and can change over time).
Hence, it is important (for whoever is involved in the safeguarding of this heritage) to engage continuously with the field and the agents who play a role in it and to monitor any developments.
Moreover, the field of Raqs sharqi has emerged as a complex sociocultural phenomenon, which is connected with the bigger social field (of Egyptian and also world society).
Hence, changing political, social, and economic situations in the environment in which Raqs sharqi takes place, can threaten or facilitate its performance/transmission.
This means that the safeguarding of Raqs sharqi cannot take place in isolation, but always needs to take into consideration a whole set of conditions.
Multidimensional and Composite Nature of Heritage
Another aspect of this type of heritage that poses a challenge for its safeguarding is its multidimensional and composite nature, in which tangible and intangible elements continuously interact.
The risk, if a holistic approach is not adopted, is of leaving out important elements of heritage.
For example, music, particularly live music and its relationship with dance (at least in a traditional setting), has emerged as a vital component of Raqs sharqi heritage.
However, while the dancers of various nationalities travel to and from Egypt to teach, learn and perform, musicians who play the music for Raqs sharqi do not seem to be widely available outside of Egypt.
This can lead to a disjunction between two essential elements of the heritage ensemble .
This phenomenon has been highlighted in reverse for samba de roda in Bahia (Brazil) by Robinson and Packman (2014), who point out that new audio recordings of its music leave out the dance.
Hence, they observe, the dance risks being marginalized because audio recordings cannot portray the centrality of dance in this art form. The risk and challenge for Egyptian Raqs sharqi is the opposite as, by focusing on the dance only, its connection with live music may be eventually marginalized.
The Importance of Individual Agency
Another important issue concerns the centrality of people in Raqs sharqi heritage and, indeed, in any other form of ICH.
Because individual agency is so important, it is vital for curators to engage with people who are part of the heritage (i.e. practitioners, students, and audiences).
This can be a challenge because it is not always easy to involve people as they may not always be motivated.
Also, for curating and cataloging records of dance, heritage professionals would need an archive that is protected but also to which the public can contribute (unlike sites such as YouTube to which the public can contribute, but where videos can be removed anytime, either by the people who post them or by the YouTube administration team if videos seem to infringe copyright).
Transculturality is another issue that needs to be considered when safeguarding ICH, because cultures are not isolated bubbles.
Therefore, the resulting cultural heritage is often transcultural and the debate needs to acknowledge this, to avoid stifling ICH and trying to force it within unnatural cultural boundaries, instead of realizing that ICH is often at the intersection of transcultural flows (drawing from Appadurai’s  ‘global cultural flows’).
Last but not least, there is the issue of the different types of capital needed for the transmission and learning of Raqs sharqi, which can lead to its objectification as a product of consumption.
Moreover, the unequal distribution of power among people involved in the field of Raqs sharqi as a form of heritage could be a cause for concern. In particular, many Egyptian practitioners (except for the most famous ones) tend to have less economic capital than non-Egyptians.
I will propose some possible ways to tackle the above challenges in the recommendations section (7.4).
First, though, I will address the limitations of this study and the problems arising during this research, to pre-empt possible questions on issues that might affect my recommendations.
Next Page >> Limitations of the Dance Study.
1 – Practitioners outside of Egypt, in places where it is hard to find live bands who play Raqs sharqi music, dance to recorded tracks, and still the connection with the music exists.
However, the music/dancer connection is still appreciated outside of Egypt, so much so that some non-Egyptian dancers move to Egypt just to dance to live music (as discussed in 5.7).
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.