Dance genres, just like other forms of performance arts, oral traditions and human activities, can now be part of the UNESCO Heritage lists under the banner of ‘intangible cultural heritage’. The idea of intangible cultural heritage became official since the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. The idea behind the creation of this convention reflects a major shift in the attitude towards cultural heritage, from one that is static and linked to monuments and material culture, to one that is more flexible and that takes into consideration practices, knowledge, traditions, skills, as well as material elements associated to these practices, such as spaces and artefacts.
The idea of intangible cultural heritage is more democratic and egalitarian than the traditional concept of heritage, as people have become central, rather than objects. This shift has been due also to the realisation that the previous UNESCO lists were too Eurocentric and did not take into consideration the perspectives of cultures for which material and monumental elements are less important and, therefore, of which they have fewer. Originally, the UNESCO’s lists were too over-represented by sites in Europe, so the introduction of the concept of intangible heritage was done with the aim to re-balance the representation by different nations. Before the 2003 UNESCO convention, forms of heritage such as dance were included in the realm of folklore.
A limitation of the UNESCO’s concept though, is that it is still too connected to the idea of nation states and to heritage being limited to its culture of origin. The 2003 definition states that intangible heritage is expressed by groups or individuals and does not limit these to the confiners of nation states. However, that fact that UNESCO’s member are nations which represent their own interests, keeps intangible heritage still confined within the idea of nations.
This is not realistic though, as a form of heritage such as dance has never been confined to individual nations and even less now, when communication has been made easier and faster thanks to new technology such as internet and air travel. There are various dance genres that have spread around the world. They have been generated by a certain culture and have changed as they have been transmitted to different cultures. Change is unavoidable to a certain extent in transmitting dance, but when different cultures are involved, two things can happen. Either a new hybrid form of dance, a completely new genre, is born, or a we have a new style within the same genre which has incorporated new characteristics. It is not always easy though, to identify clearly whether a new dance expression is a new style or a new genre altogether. There are many dance genres that could be used as examples of this change in transmission, such as tango, which has expanded from the working classes of Buenos Aires to the salons of Paris and the rest of the world. Below I will give though the examples of ballet and belly dance, both two dance genres that have their roots in a specific area of the world, but which have been adopted in many places worldwide.
Belly dance originated in the Middle East and Northern Africa, specifically from Egypt and Turkey (although with two different styles and influences). As all dance forms, since the beginning it has always been influenced by different cultures even within its areas of origin. After all, dances are always changing and always receive creative inputs from their practitioners. However, from the early 20th century, belly dance (so called from the French danse du ventre to refer to the movements of the torso) started being adopted in America and Europe and later on, towards the end of the 20th century, everywhere else in the world including as far afield as Australia and Far East Asia. There is no space here to go into the history of belly dance in details, as it is complex and varied and still there is a debate going on around the origins of the dance. Suffice to say, that new styles and new genres have developed over time and space. A book that contains a series of interesting essays about this dance form and its transglobal dimension is Belly Dance Around the World. New Communities, Performance and Identity.
One of the articles in the book, for example, highlights how Belly dance in New Zealand has mixed with traditional Maori dance. Hence, the movements as well as the costumes incorporate elements from both Middle Eastern and Maori cultures. Around the world new forms of belly dance fusion have developed, such as belly dance fusion with Bollywood dance, hula dance, vaudeville and so on. A new genre altogether, American tribal belly dance (ATS), was created in the 1980s in the USA using some of the basic movements of Middle Eastern improvisational dance, but with a different flavour and using different costumes and philosophies. Other times the contamination of different elements is more subtle, as when changes happen in the way the dance is felt and experienced rather than in the actual movements. For example, what we call belly dance today, in its countries of origin was and often still is an improvised solo form. Outside of those regions instead, it is often choreographed and performed by groups.
Ballet originates from Europe, form court dance in Italy in the 1500s. This dance form was then taken to France by Caterina de’ Medici and further developed in France in the 1700s in the court of the Sun King, Louis the XIV. Throughout the 1800s, ballet continued to developed in Europe and was also adopted in Russia, where it was mastered to very high levels.
Ballet nowadays has spread further afield than Europe, to China, for example, where they have created a special version of acrobatic Chinese ballet, or Cuba which has given rise to great dancers such as Carlos Acosta. In every country ballet has taken on new elements and significance. Another example of how ballet has developed in different countries is Grupo Corpo in Brazil, who started off as a traditional classical ballet company in the 1970s and who gradually incorporated new local elements. For example, one of the founders and original choreographers of Grupo Corpo used to walk around the street in Brazil, looking at the way people moved, to get ideas to incorporate in the dances he created.
I have taken below some examples of videos to show the differences between different types of belly dance and ballet and how they have taken on different flavours, according to the cultures that have influenced them.