Video Clip: Princess Farhana dancing with the shamadan
The very first time I saw Raks Al Shamadan, I was a baby belly dancer attending an Egyptian wedding, where a zeffah was being performed, with many shamadan-crowned dancers leading in the bride and groom. I was so captivated by the spectacle, that on that very night, I fell asleep thinking about it and dreamed of dancing someday with a beautiful, fiery candelabra on my head. Utterly obsessed, I bought a shamadan from Turquoise International the very next day and vowed to learn this wonderful Egyptian specialty. Exactly three months later, at another wedding, it was I leading the wedding processional! It was also the beginning of my twenty-year long love affair with raks shamadan…and years of study and research about this fascinating tradition.
Shamadan (spelled phonetically in various ways) is a large candelabrum balanced on top of a dancer’s head, in a tradition unique to Egyptian dance. This beautiful dance prop is historically used in the Egyptian wedding procession, or zeffah. The Arabic word zeffah literally means “procession with noise”. Now as in years past, a zeffah is a joyous wedding parade, usually taking place at night, consisting of hired dancers (with or without candelabras atop their heads) musicians, singers and family members, winding through an entire neighborhood, taking the bride to her groom’s house. In the years before electricity was used, dancers would balance large, lit-up lanterns- and later specially made candelabrum- on top of their heads, to illuminate the bride and groom’s faces during their first appearance as man and wife. These dancers were hired performers, and depending upon the wealth or status of the wedding party, there could be a large range of shamadan dancers, from just one or two to many dancers. Today, though outdoor zeffahs still occur in Egypt, many are performed in hotels or rented banquet halls, making the wedding procession much shorter in duration.
Shamadan dancing as part of the zeffah began in the early 20th century. Prior to that time, the lighting for the zeffah was provided only by long, over-sized, decorated wedding candles as well as by illuminated lanterns (klob in Arabic) which were carried by members of the wedding procession. It is believed that the dancer Zouba El Klobatiyya (also spelled in various ways) was the first performer to dance with a lantern-or klob balanced on her head- hence, her name. If she wasn’t actually the first dancer to perform with a lantern balanced atop her head, she did at least become the first to gain recognition for it. She was followed in quick succession by a Coptic Christian dancer, Shafiya El Koptyyia (Shafiya The Copt) who also performed this skill.
Modern-day Egyptian dancer Nadia Hamdi, a very famous dancer active through the beginning of this century, is known the world over for her shamadan skills including floor work and splits, was trained by the original dancers, preserving the tradition. As a young girl, Nadia Hamdi learned the practice from observing Zouba El Klobatiyya first hand, and then was formally trained in the tradition by her grandmother, a contemporary of Zouba El Klobatiyya and Shafiya El Koptiyya.
Older versions of shamadans were fitted on the bottom with a slightly inverted cup, which balanced by sitting on the on the crown of the dancer’s head, a skill which took precision, grace and (usually) years of practice. Today, most modern shamadans are constructed with an attached, adjustable headband, which fits around the dancer’s temples. This beautiful dance prop is still used today in the Egyptian wedding procession, or zeffah as well as in folkloric and theatrical shows, and sometimes even incorporated into a nightclub belly dance routine.
For a brand new imported or Egyptian-made shamadan, expect to pay anywhere between USD$100.00-$300.00 (as of this writing) outside of Egypt. There are many different styles, some are extremely intricate, and others are more utilitarian. Shamadans from Egypt are large and sometimes not altogether stable: the drip cups may sit askew and the arms may move around, but this can usually be fixed with pliers, or by soldering or gluing them. The crown of the shamadan should have a snug, almost tight fit around your head, resting just above the temples. If your shamadan is too loose, it will wobble on your head. It is easy to glue sponge rubber or some other type of padding to the inside of the crown to prevent it from slipping around, and this will provide you with a more comfortable fit, as well.
Larger shamadans look very impressive, but slightly smaller ones are more portable, and much easier to work with. There are now even “collapsible” (portable) shamadans, though I have never used one myself.
A word to the wise: when traveling to gigs, never leave a shamadan in your car or trunk for even a short length of time- even the slightest heat in a short amount of time will melt the candles! When traveling with a shamadan lay it on it's side on a car seat wrapped in a towel, or strap it in with a seat belt.
The crystals or beads and coins decorating some shamadans can be repaired if the chains break with jewelry pliers or even, in a pinch, a regular set of tweezers. These crystals can also be replaced by purchasing new strands at stores that sell lamps and lighting fixtures. If your crystals get covered with wax drippings (and believe me, this is inevitable!) remove them from the shamadan, put them in a baggie and pop the baggie into the freezer for a few hours, the cold wax will pop right off the glass, and they will be good as new.
After every shamadan use, clean out the candle's drip-cups, or the wax will build up and be more prone to spill onto your hair. You can either use a butter knife or pry the dried wax out, or you can train a blow-dryer set to high heat on the wax drippings, which will soften them up enough for the wax to be wiped away with a cloth. Since shamadans are still constructed by hand, and candle sizes vary, some of the candle holders may be loose- wrap your candles with tinfoil for a snug, fire-proof fit.
Longer candles or dinner tapers are also heavier, short emergency candles still look good and are significantly lighter on your head. They're also cheaper than dinner candles-remember, you're going to have to use at least nine, maybe twelve candles. Even if a candle is "drip less", there's no such thing when it's on your head!
Make sure that you always keep a book of matches or a lighter and extra candles with your shamadan, as well as a small craft pliers for any chain or crystal repair or re-fastening.
When dancing at a wedding or private party in a home or banquet hall, avoid ceiling air-conditioning vents, as the rush of air will blow the hot wax from the candle-drippings onto you, all over your hair and costume. Be careful of ceiling and doorway clearance, and of course, be very wary of draperies. Also make sure to thoroughly check with your venue and the local Fire Marshall concerning fire/open flame/insurance laws. Many places do not allow open flames, or require performers working with open flames to carry fire insurance. In this case, if you are un-insured, you can purchase LED or battery-operated candles (from a craft shop or florist supply store) but note that these candles will be much heavier and therefore more difficult to balance.
As far as costuming goes, especially if you aren't used to wearing a shamadan, don't select a costume to wear which will allow the wax drips to show up (because wax will be dripping!) and potentially ruin it. Many balady or hagallah dresses made in Egypt are made of tulle or netting, which is easy to pick the dried melted wax from. Of course, these are best if you don’t want to stain your costume.
When using real wax candles, don't light up until just before you're about to dance because of the drip factor. If you're not doing a zeffah (Egyptian bridal procession), pick a slower song, a taxim or even some ambient music to dance because dancing quickly with a shamadan negates its stately beauty.
Have fun…and remember: when working with a shamadan-or any type of live flames in performance-SAFETY FIRST!
Princess Farhana is featured on Cheeky Girl Productions DVDs “Combination Nation Vol. 1” and “By Dancers. For Dancers Vol. 5”. Her own instructional DVD “Belly Dance And Balance: The Art Of Sword And Shamadan” can be purchased from www.princessfarhana.com