Saturday, February 27, 2010
RAKS SHAMADAN: HISTORY, TIPS, CARE AND REPAIR
I became interested in Egyptian Raks Al Shamadan at the very beginning of my belly dance career, and began performing it early on. Not only was I attracted to the fiery beauty of balancing a large candelabra on my head while I danced, the tradition surrounding raks al shamadan is fascinating. In my dance career, I have performed raks al shamadan at hundreds of Egyptian and Arabic weddings, and the traditional Egyptian wedding music, "Zeffah Al Arousa" gives me goosebumps and makes me cry every time, even if I have never met the bride and groom before bringing them in!
I've also performed this gorgeous dance at the weddings of many belly dancers... one my favorite belly dance wedding performances was for Jillina's nuptials, where a huge line of belly dancers including myself, Neena and Veena Bidasha, Louchia, Laura Crawford,Kamala, and many members of Flowers Of The Desert Dance Company all made the zeffah processionin ruby red and gold costumes, playing our cymbals for all we were worth, and zaghareeting like a bunch of banshees! The other was for Arkansas-based dancer Lena Regina, who was hosting me as a workshop instructor for the annual event Shimmy Fest. The night before I left for Arkansas, she called me at midnight to tell me that her and her boyfriend has decided to have a surpise wedding...at the event, directly after the show! She wanted me to lead the zeffah, so of course I did! Lena was a beautiful bride in bright orange, and the whole crowd and all the performers joined in the surprise wedding, it was pretty spectacular!
The 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, 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 performers. 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.
Raks Al Shamadan as part of the zeffah procession 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. Legendary Egyptian dancer Nadia Hamdi, who is known the world over for her shamadan skills and floor work including splits, is noted for her skills with shamadan, having been trained by the original dancers, and is still in action today, 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 Egyptian-made shamadans (even as late as the early 1990's) 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 head band 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 night club 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. This is because they are all hand-constructed, and heavy to ship. 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 arms may move around, but this can 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 “collapsable” (portable) shamadans, though I have never used one myself. 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 by car, lay it on it's side 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 a 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 the crystals get covered with wax drippings, remove them from the shamadan , put them in a baggie and put them into the feezer 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 and 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 fit. Remember that longer candles or long dinner tapers are also heavier, short emergency candles look good and are 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 on a stage, avoid ceiling air-conditioning vents, as it will blow the hot wax onto you, all over your hair and costume. Be careful of ceiling and doorway clearance, and of course, be very wary of draperies. Also- makes 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 inevitable wax drips will show up ( because, believe me, wax will be dripping!) and potentially ruin it.
Many balady or hagallah dresses made in Egypt are made of 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 wax-drip factor. If you're not doing a zeffah (Egyptian bridal procession), pick a slower song or a taxim, because dancing quickly with a shamadan negates its stately beauty.
Some shamadan resources:
My instuctional DVD, "Belly Dance & Balance: The Art Of Sword And Shamadan" can be purchased here:
Shamadans to purchase here:
Links to various shamadan performances on Youtube.com
Amira Dance Productions from Kansas ( staged- non traditional)
Cairo Zeffah celebrations
Photo: Princess Farhana dancing raks al shamadan at an Egyptian wedding