Correspondence from Wanda Gala at the University of Limerick #4

This past month at the IPEDAK conference on Dance Knowledge in Trondheim issues of the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage brought the notion of authenticity to the forefront of discussions. Firstly I must express that I attributed this to the amount of folk lore scholars at the conference, but upon reflection and recent articles concerning the authenticity of contemporary dance practices I find that such a conversation was not as archaic as I had initially thought. It seems that critics across dance genres have not outgrown the notion of authenticity as an objective statement delineating the quality or legitimacy of a dance expression. Hence I am brought to reflect on the subjective nature of the term ‘authenticity’ as it may be defined by the purpose of proposed frameworks for the safeguarding of dance: in American copyright law as well as UNESCO and WIPO Conventions on the subject. For as our host, ethnochoreologist Egil Bakka says, the question of ‘authenticity ‘ often turns to “whose authenticity”?

UNESCO in the safeguarding of intangible culture heritage (which also, I feel is a somewhat problematic term, because it portrays the notion of dance culture as something pervading physical attributes) provides economic support as an aide in ‘safe-guarding’. In brief, ’intangible cultural heritage’ was defined in a UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 1993, as the practices, artifacts, and environments, which compose physical cultural expressions. An intangible heritage is inclusive of the performing arts, oral traditions, social practices, craftsmanship, knowledge and practices concerning nature of the universe . ICH is transmitted from generation to generation promoting and providing a sense of cultural identity and continuity, a sort of physicalized historical inheritance. Yet in the preservation of ICH awarding ownership of a dance practice to a particular cultural group or person seems problematic. Who benefits from the ownership of a cultural product? Who has the rights to it? No legal framework has been internationally developed and the WIPO still working on propositions. The goals of ‘safeguarding’, or, the objective of such a framework, would ideally empower communities in a manner that is balanced and equitable and yet effectively empowers traditional and indigenous communities to their traditions/cultural expressions.

A continuous thread of debate at the conference was how, when selected to receive funds, can supporting a community preserve ‘their innocent state’ without changing the ‘innocence’ of their culturally specific practice/expression. The very act of funding the ‘authentic’ expression of an individual or persons aides, or may aide, in its perversion. Simultaneously it is a seemingly romantic notion that dances remain fixed in any capacity. In their existence as living art forms, the evolution of dances reflect their process of transmission. Felix Hoeburger’s theories on the characteristics of a dance’s first and second existences describe such a phenomenon. In Hoeburgers conception, a dance’s first existence may be characterized by; informal learning; an unfixed nature; its integral nature to the community it is a part of or the un-self-consciousness of its practice. Its second existence would be characterized by; it’s formal teaching; its conscious cultivation; the development of a fixed or codified movement vocabulary; and its performance and transmission by specialists in the form. Dances in their first existences may be personal while in their second existence have become codified ways of moving. Andriy Nahachewsky expounds upon this theory to classify a third existence in which elements of stage dance descend from the proscenium to become part of social dance again in a new dance form .The same dance in all three of its existences upholds different values particular to its informal, or formal, methods of transmission, its context amongst a communities dance practices, its use as commodity or social service, etc. In a way, each version of the dance can be regarded as a site-specific adaptation, with community and the notion of culture as a generator of community, are the site of its appropriation. Each adaptation by each community would be considered to be original to that community. So in light of these theories on the multiple existences of singular dances within the genre of ‘folk dance tradition’, how is equity insured in the selection of what is worth preserving? And how might this relate to modern or contemporary dance idioms?

This conference also brought to my attention that the US would not ratify UNESCO’s 1993 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage or develop comparable cultural policy: due to the privatization of arts and culture in America and hence contradiction of free market rights. Yet the manner of protecting choreography as intellectual property in the US has similar goals to that of the UNESCO Convention.

In the US our own copyright laws are made to such an effect, for the greater good of the public, rather than the personal gain of the author. The American copyright is a form of protection awarded to the authors of ‘original works’. “Ideas, procedures, methods of operation, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries and devices…” are not copyrightable. In America, copyright is not seen as an inherent right of the creator, but as Jordan Susman says, ‘is a mix between private enterprise and private good… copyright rewards the author, but its primary purpose is public good’. Choreography, as a creative expression is allotted the highest level of protection (functional systems receive the lowest). The idea as it is expressed through a movement is that which may be copyrighted. It remains that the proprietary rights granted to ideas and basic elements needed to create work should remain in the public domain.

It seems that the support and recognition of vast differentiations of dance expressions, in their first, second and third lives, serves the general public in bearing notions of authenticity for the individual or a people within the context of their own time or locality. Inevitably such acknowledgment expressively heeds to the complex nature of dance expressions themselves, serving as signifiers of inter and intrapersonal truths reflecting broader socio-cultural histories and happenings. In conclusion, the answer to the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage on a communal or national level is still negotiated in the lives of individual creators as well as larger private and national social institutions. Yet, one thing is certain within the goals of endorsing any standard of preservation, is the defense of the accessibility and promotion of dance expressions as living practices within their communities.

And in this quest, the question of authenticity: be it in traditional or contemporary dance expressions: is brought back to the significance and resonance of these expressions as communicators of personal and social value.

Holding objective notions of ‘authenticity’ or even originality at the core of legal frameworks (protecting dance as a cultural artifact) proves to be a problematic idea. It provokes a conflict of interests that suggests that the best outline for legally delineating the relevance of a dance expression must be just as flexible as the definition of dance itself. And must be capable of individually treating the case of copyright, rather than superimposing a general framework with which to treat the entirety of the genre.

In the end I cannot help but think that perhaps the use of legal frameworks to insure the public accessibility and maintenance of dance works is a bit of a bogus thought. Culture as a notion, not a thing, has fallen into realm of intellectual property and it is questionable if it is ethical to legally stipulate these ideas as private property.


Articles and Provisions from: UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 17,October 2003. Paris.

Bakka, Egil (2002). Whose Dances, Whose Authenticity? European Folklore Institute, Budapest. pp.61-69

Jesein, K (2006). “Don’t Sweat It: Copyright Protection for Yoga…What’s Next?”. In Law, Policy and Ethics Journal. Volume 5. Cardozo Publishing.p 623-654

Nahachewsky, Andriy (2001). “Once Again: On the Concept of “Second Existence Folk Dance” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 33. pp. 17-28.

Susman, J (2005). ‘Your Karma Ran Over My Dogma, Bikram Yoga and the (Im)possibilities of Copyrighting Yoga’. Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review. vl. 25. p.245-274

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