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Transmission of Dance

Dance and Transmission

Transmission is part of heritage, as Naguib (2013, p. 5) posits, ‘safeguarding . . . conveys the idea of protecting and preserving, while at the same time transmitting far and wide’.

Transmission is also connected with the temporal dimension of heritage, as we decide what to transmit from the past to the future, using criteria that apply to the present.

As Howard (2003, p. 21) argues, ‘heritage is interested in how the past might be conserved and interpreted for the benefit of the present and the future’.

In the dance analysis, various media for the transmission of dance/heritage have been highlighted, each with its own characteristics.

Transmission takes place both in person and by watching media (body to body and mimesis). For this reason, heritage has become de-territorialised and de-temporalized.

Thus heritage, rather than being ‘transmitted generation to generation’ (UNESCO, 2003, p. 2) can skip generations. This point is well made by Helen, who remarks that:

Since I started, we’ve had the Internet, so I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to just look up on YouTube and they were all there for me to watch. All 20th century styles of Egyptian belly dance.

Helen (Research volunteer on this PhD)

Dance Transmission via the Body

Whether raqs sharqi is learnt in person or through videos, it is acquired perceptually as the body, drawing on Merleau-Ponty ([1945] 1992, pp. 164–165) ‘“catches” (kapiert) and “comprehends” the movement’.

Traditionally, raqs sharqi was taught without choreography, nor explanations.

Even today, some Egyptian dancers such as Lucy (Rose, 2006) and Mona al Said (El Safy, 1996, para. 7), teach ‘in a kind of “follow me” demonstration of their intuitive response to the music’.

Esposito (2014, para. 6) remarks that ‘choreography is an alien concept for most Egyptian belly dancers’.

Indeed, non-Egyptian practitioners can learn by imitation by watching videos of dance available online, like Helen who told me that ‘YouTube is really good for picking up new moves . . . I can see a dancer doing something and I can copy it’.

Moreover, videos can convey the feeling of the dance, as Angela explains, ‘there’s something about watching admired dancers or vintage clips that gives you the feel of it, that you can’t learn in a technique class’.

Videos are tangible allocative resources, as per the living cultural heritage model (3.7), which give practitioners the means to learn and gain authority as well as cultural capital in the field.

Most of my participant stated that they find YouTube useful for learning new movements and drawing inspiration.

However, the physical presence of a teacher is always appreciated.

Abila, for example, thinks that ‘watching stuff on YouTube is not the same as being in the room with someone . . . because the energy is different on this tiny little screen’.

Geographically Independent Learning and Transmission

Practitioners employ various methods for learning and teaching, as more and more teachers now teach remotely using the Internet, for example:

  • with Skype
  • via online courses that employ videos and forums and creating subscription-based websites.

It seems though that there is a progression from methods requiring lower capital at the beginning, to investing more capital as the students’ involvement grows.

Methods range from:

  • watching free videos online (low amount of economic capital needed, apart from having access to a computer and the Internet)
  • to attending classes with local teachers (medium level of capital)
  • to receiving one-to-one training with more or less famous teachers and attending workshops and festivals internationally (high amount of capital).

Lorna’s story is a good example of this progression when she says that:

When I started, it was a once a week class, obsessive practising. . . . But then, since I went to Egypt, I was doing workshops with all the top dancers and going to the festivals, the Ahlan wa Sahlan and then the Nile Group and watching dancers and having lessons with the dancers.

Lorna (Research participant for this PhD)

Similarly, Leena explains that:

I took classes with my “own teachers”, then with Finnish top teachers. I have also regularly attended workshops with both Finnish top teachers and the big stars brought to teach raqs sharqi in Finland. Currently, I mainly study with international teachers.

Leena (Research participant for this PhD)

Capital and the Transmission of Heritage

Hence, drawing from Bourdieu’s (1992) theory of practice, it seems that transmission of heritage is about capital:

  • economic
  • social
  • cultural (in all three forms of embodied, objectified and institutionalized).

Also, it is about mobilities (following Urry, 2008) of people, objects and communication.

The type of mobility that involves corporeal travel, requires a high amount of capital, mostly economic.

Diasporas are also a type of corporeal travel, which is not necessarily linked to the ownership of capital (maybe the lack of it).

However, the transmission of heritage is, as Middle Eastern people who moved to the USA in the 1960s, had to invest economic capital to run the ethnic restaurants (whose aim was also to generate economic capital) in which the dance was transmitted.

Embodied Capital

The embodied capital resides in the persons of dancers/teachers (who embody heritage).

The more famous the dancer/teacher is, the greater her/his embodied and heritage capital, so their presence is requested further and further afield, from a local to an international scale.

The institutionalised capital is expressed in attendance to festivals, workshops, classes and other events.

Although raqs sharqi is not an institutionalised type of dance and there are no officially recognised qualifications, if a dancer is known to have attended a certain number of events, travelled and undergone training, her/his recognition in the eyes of other practitioners grows accordingly.

The idea of embodied capital in the transmission of heritage fits one part of the living heritage model (the part that links to Bourdieu’s theory as outlined in 3.7), but the other two levels of the model are also accounted for.

The people who embody heritage have the agency to innovate or not and they can themselves create ‘constitutive rules’, or modify their own constitutive rules, through the discourse they generate on what is considered ‘good’ Egyptian raqs sharqi.

Also, the people who embody this heritage and transmit it, are ‘living resources’ that future Egyptian raqs sharqi learners can draw on. In this sense (following both Giddens and Bourdieu) dancers literally embody these traditional structures as well as other resources that might be more transformative.

The phenomenological aspect is also accounted for, when the dance is transmitted perceptually and as a unity of movements and feelings that generate kinaesthetic empathy.

Objectified Capital

The objectified capital is also connected to the physical movement of objects, such as: books, DVDs, video cassettes, magazines.

These items also have heritage value in themselves and they are valued as learning tools, in which practitioners are willing to invest economic capital.

Ann, for instance, says that she has read several books and owns many DVDs, which she admits ‘it cost me a fortune, but there you go’.

Another type of mobility that contributes to transmission of raqs sharqi heritage is communicative travel, which today happens mainly through the Internet.

The ability to access the Internet, and particularly to transmit information through it, is also linked to cultural capital. The more skills a practitioner masters such as (just to mention a few): writing, video production, web design, foreign languages, the more they can transmit their ideas and knowledge about the dance.

Alternatively, they need economic or social capital to employ other people with the skills to help them.

Moreover, as practitioners invest economic capital to build cultural capital, they also increase their social capital because meet other raqs sharqi enthusiasts, by communicating online and/or travelling.

This increases what Urry (2008) calls ‘network capital’ which allows them to keep in contact with people who are not necessarily physically close to them.

Imaginative and virtual travel and Heritage Transmission

Two more mobilities that Urry (2008, p. 47) mentions are imaginative travel (through images in media) and virtual travel, often in real time, transcending geographical and social distance.

These mobilities can be achieved through media, especially through the Internet.

Imaginative and virtual travel can also overcome time to a certain extent. Media can create what I would call ‘virtual heritage’ (represented in videos of dance from movies, live performances or TV shows), which is then disseminated transculturally via the web.

In particular, I am thinking of famous dancers from the past, some of whom are no longer alive, who become virtual heritage.

These have been ‘pushed into the status . . . of classic works’ (Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993, p. 32) by new generations of dancers who no longer see them as threats in the raqs sharqi field of cultural production.


Physical locations and society. Impact on Belly Dance Heritage Transmission

The last two factors I have identified, which have influenced the transmission of raqs sharqi are:

  • physical locations
  • and society

The former, especially ‘contact zones’, are the places in which the dance was and is performed and without which the transmission of raqs sharqi would have not have been possible.

These include:

  • salas
  • ethnic restaurants in the USA
  • Arab nightclubs in London
  • festivals
  • formal classes

The latter (society) can create favourable conditions for the transmission of heritage.

For raqs sharqi in the USA, these were feminism and social changes in the late 1960s. Social trends and changes can either facilitate or threaten the survival of heritage.

In the following section, I will summarise my findings regarding what can help or hinder heritage.

Next Page >> Influences on Heritage that Can Encourage, Help Safeguard or Threaten it.

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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.