Saturday, February 27, 2010


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 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

Princess Farhana

Amira Dance Productions from Kansas ( staged- non traditional)

Cairo Zeffah celebrations

Photo: Princess Farhana dancing raks al shamadan at an Egyptian wedding

Monday, February 22, 2010

And The WInner Is......

With all the hoopla surrounding the Olympics, everyone all over the world has been practically glued to their television sets lately! It's exciting and inspirational to watch, and it seems that everyone gets caught up in the drama...who will win, who will lose, and how the competitors perform.

While the Olympics were taking up a lot of air-time on TV, I was participating in a Belly Dance Olympics of sorts- recently I was a judge on numerous panels of the Belly Dancer of The Universe Competition, and it got me thinking about the similarities of the two events. I have judged many competitions in the past, and judging is never easy, no matter what the category. Oriental dancing is an art, not a sport, but belly dance competitions do offer some of the same drama that the Olympics does: it's enteraining, educational, there's stiff competition, and it's riveting to watch.

Belly dance competitions are popular the world over. There are dozens of major, international competitions and quite a few regional ones, too. Some contests offer a multitude of specific categories; others are more focused on one type of belly dance, but with different divisions for age or experience. Competitions can function both as stand-alone events as well as contests that are at featured at dance festivals, alongside with workshops, professional performances, open-floor dancing and student shows.

Spectators flock to watch these competitions for many reasons. They are belly dance fans and aficionados; they want to support contestants that are friends, family, students or peers. Contests are also a good place to see new talent, to look at the latest cutting-edge trends in oriental dance, and because contests usually offer lots of entertainment value at a lower price than many restaurants, night clubs or theatrical shows featuring belly dancing.

Performers enter competitions for reasons that are as unique or diverse as the belly dance community itself, but it seems the majority of dancers enter into competitions hoping to get noticed. Belly dance competitions are a great way of gaining exposure: along with a trophy and prizes that can range from cash to costumes, jewelry, gift certificates, etc., title-holders can pretty much expect good publicity and national or international name recognition, plus lucrative offers ranging from coveted spots in theatrical shows to contracts to teach workshops, and even appearances in performance videos or on instructional DVDs. Of course, depending on whose in the crowd, or where the contest is being held, even if a contestant doesn’t place, recognition and lucrative offers can happen as well-contest are a way of putting yourself out there as a dancer.

The very nature of contests calls attention to promising unknown performers as well as “unsung heroes”- talented dancers that the public might otherwise not be aware of. It’s a terrific way for someone from a small, regional studio to get the national or international attention they deserve, and it’s not uncommon for contestants to travel from far-flung locations - many of which may not have a thriving dance scene- to compete, and hopefully take their career to “ the next level”.

Some performers enter belly dance competitions for the sole purpose of setting personal dance-goals, because they want to challenge themselves. For these contestants, many of who are great dancers who have no desire to go professional, winning or losing isn’t the main objective, it’s the whole process that counts. They may be hobbyists, or in love with the dance but committed to a job or raising a family, and competing is more about accomplishing something they set out to do rather than jump-starting a career.
And there are also dancers who compete as a lark, or because they were urged to enter by a teacher, mentor, friends or family.

As someone who has judged a fair amount of competitions, from experience, I can tell you that judging is NOT an easy task. Personally, I believe that anyone who enters a competition should be given kudos, no matter what-it takes guts to put yourself out there, to believe in yourself and your talents and to compete with your peers! I myself am pretty much a lenient judge, and even though the criteria sheets for judges are (most of the time) anonymous, I try to scribble a few lines of encouragement to the contestant, or at least explain the reason why I added or subtracted points in a certain category.

Sometimes, I find the judging process itself completely surreal. Many times, a category I’m judging is so full of great dancers who have wonderful stage presence and dazzling technique, wearing costumes I’d give my right hip for, it’s really difficult to pick a winner. But there are always a few contestants who, sadly, don’t have a clue… and unfortunately, this aberration applies not only to my own personal taste, but also to everyone on the judging panel, as well as the audience!

Even though belly dance competitions are not the Olympics, some of the “Things That Make You Go Hmmm” that performers put out onstage during competitions are downright confounding- and I’m not talking about a dancer accidentally tripping on a veil or having a minor technical issue with her music. I’m talking about stuff like a weird, badly-costumed, un-choreographed “interpretive dance” that couldn’t even be classified as “fusion” entered into the Egyptian category; or someone whose performance is a total train wreck: like a dancer in a cheap, toy store/ Halloween Headquarters costume that doesn’t fit and has underwear showing; wearing cymbals but not playing them, or being severely off-beat; no stage presence, no technique and badly-done music editing…all at the same time! Ask anyone who has judged a competition and they will tell you that this is actually not un-common!

Once I was judging a kid’s competition, ages 5-13. The contest organizers told us not to get too dazzled by the overall cuteness of the contestants, and believe me, most of them were adorable- not to mention extremely well trained! At one point, I was impressed with the level of presentation, I wondered to myself why I was a judge- any of the uber-talented kiddies on stage could’ve literally danced circles around me…and then the age thing had me stumped too: how the hell was I supposed to be judging a category where some contestants had been dancing for years longer than others had been alive? And by the middle of the children’s category, I found myself thinking, “ I don’t care about plastic surgery, I just want a tendon-transplant from a flexible 9-year-old whose vocabulary doesn’t include the words “ Ibuprophen” or “Icy Hot”!

Also, in my opinion, I am not sure why nationally or internationally-known professional belly dancers (some even with instructional DVD’s on the market) enter contests, since it seems to me that they already have recognition and a good career… but I guess that’s just my own thoughts on the matter!

But back to judging: most of the time, competition judges are given sheets with a strict point rating system for the categories they are observing, and sometimes, there is a space left on that sheet for additional comments.

These criteria can range from points for costuming, stage presence, lyrical and rhythmic interpretations, choreography, improv, transitions, and prop use. Often, points may be subtracted for performances or costumes that for the category being judged, songs or routines that run over the allotted time or even if the contestant’s age or experience isn’t suitable for the category the competitor entered.

Many contests offer a “People’s Choice” category (usually with a trophy or prize) where the audience themselves vote on their favorite performer. The actual contest winner or someone who took second or third place may or may not win this award; sometimes another contestant that didn’t even make semi-finals wins it. This is up to the crowd alone, who are not given any sort of scoring or point sheet; they just vote for whomever they liked.

Sometimes, competitions seem to take a surprising turn, with an un-expected, “dark horse” winner taking first place, and an audience favorite not even placing as a semi-finalist. This is sometimes due to the judge’s personal taste in appropriate scoring, and also because when determining a winner, all points given by judges are taken into account and tallied up for a total, overall score.

As a judge, I look for a “whole package” in a contestant, and it’s my guess that is what the other judges do as well.

I can’t tell you exactly how to win a competition, but I can tell you things that might help you to prepare.

Practice, practice, and practice some more!
There is no such thing as “over rehearsing” for a competition…unless, of course, you injure yourself in the process. Know your routine (whether choreographed or improvised) and know it well. Some contestants practice for hours a day, for months. Just make sure that in this intense rehearsal period you are getting proper nutrition, and enough sleep to let your muscles –and your brain-repair! Many dancers add on private lessons, or work with coaches when prepping for competition- it’s something to think about, and worth doing if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, try to seek out a dance mentor who can watch your performance and offer helpful tips. Videotape yourself and your routine and view it to determine your strong points and weaknesses.

Make sure you have everything you will need in your dance bag, including all costume pieces, needle and thread, pins, feminine protection, hair spray, back-up copies of music, a cover-up, etc. You can never be “too prepared”, and you never know what will come up! Know the directions for getting yourself to the contest itself, make travel reservations and confirm them well in advance, pack some light snacks and water with you on the day of the contest, and get some rest- you will need it!

Presentation is everything
To become a winner, you must “have it all”: Technique, a hot routine that uses the full stage, stage presence and appropriate emotions that translate beyond the footlights, professionally edited music, a costume that fits well and looks beautiful on you… and you also need to stick to the time limits- don’t go even a second over your allotted time.

Categorize yourself
Pick the appropriate category (or categories) for your dancing… for example, if you are a strong fusion style dancer, do not enter the Egyptian category, you will only be throwing your contest fee away on something you won’t stand a chance of wining. Also, determine whether or not you are entering into a competition category that is suitable for your age range or skill-level, and make sure you know exactly what certain category criteria is.

I have seen contestants get points taken off for a variety of things, but one major blunder is not sticking to the criteria for the category entered. For example: I recently judged a “Specialty Props” category, where many contestants did veil work… and not that much of it…with a single veil. Though I didn’t check with the other judges, I believe we were all on the same page: a veil isn’t a specialty prop: along with finger cymbals, it’s a belly dance “standard” item. Specialty props are things like cane, fans, shamadan, hula-hoops, trays, jugs, swords, Isis Wings, and double veils. And if you are using a prop that entails use of fire, please check whether or not open flames are allowed in the contest-because many times, the contest and the venue itself, will not allow open flames!

Costume yourself appropriately
You are not going to win a contest through your appearance alone, but you can and will get points taken off if your costume is not appropriate. It doesn’t matter if your costume is home made or a high couture creation- but it should fit appropriately, flatter you, and be suitable for the category you are entering. Use fashion-tape and safety pins even if you think you don’t need them, wear shoes to protect your feet (there may be beads on the stage from other dancers) make sure all straps, snaps, hooks and zippers are in tip-top shape, hem your veils and skirts, spray your hair, and for Pete’s sake wear enough make-up!

Kick stress to the curb
If you have practiced and planned enough to be comfortable in your performance and know exactly what you are planning on doing, try to alleviate stage fright and performance adrenalin by taking a few even, deep breathes before you go on stage. Remind yourself mentally to go slow and to finish every movement. Remember to smile- it really “sells” your performance, the audience loves smiling dancers. Even if the judges are keeping poker faces, smile right at them and look them in the eye! A smile and a confident attitude sometimes makes the difference when points are getting scored, keep that in mind, too.

If you miss a few steps in choreography, or have some sort of minor mishap onstage, do not let it show in your facial expressions. Know that you have prepared for this moment fully, and trust in yourself and your abilities. Nobody on the judging panel started out being a fantastic dancer- nobody was born that way, everyone has worked towards that goal, just remember that! As judges, we admire your bravery and your unique presence, we are only human…and we too have had mishaps occur onstage, probably more than we would ever admit to!

Look at competitions as a learning experience
Congratulations, girl: even if you don’t win or even place in the semi-finals, you have done your personal best, and by the very action of entering a contest alone, you are a winner!
All of your preparation and practice has not gone to waste if you don’t win, you will only be a better dancer for the experience. Don’t beat yourself up and try not to feel dejected. You set a goal for yourself, and you followed through. You probably also made some new friends, and now people in the community are aware of you, as well.

All that alone is amazing…. and with the popularity of belly dance growing every day, there will be plenty of other chances for you to enter other competitions!

Monday, February 1, 2010


2010 got off to a crazy start. Mistakenly, I somehow thought that January would be quiet... but boy, was I wrong!
As far back as I can remember, it seems that life- MY life, anyway, is always a rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows. Drama, and not the manufactured, reality television type, always seems to follow me. Though I congratulated myself on being home, with stage make-up completely off before the stroke of midnight, the New Year began with an exploding water heater. It's never a good thing when you have to call your landlord late on a Sunday night!

In the past few weeks, I've lost a dear old friend, another had a serious accident and is still in the hospital, and almost lost a kitty due to an emergency- we had to rush her to the vet in the middle of a torrential rainstorm of Biblical proportions. An ark probably would've done a better job than my car at that point! This all took a huge toll on me, and though I was ecstatic to have gigs every night, the whole first weeks of this year were exhausting, both physically and emotionally.

Anyway, things are looking up now: I'm at peace with my friend's passing, my other friend seems to be doing better and will be moved from ICU this week ( knock on wood) and the kitty is great!

This week, I am looking forward to two major events: February 3 is the Hollywood Premiere of "Stuck!", Steve Balderson's fantastic black and white homage to 1950's noir women-in-prison films. I am thrilled that the movie is showing at The Egyptian Theater, an LA Landmark ( with an appropriately "friendly" name for belly dancers!) it's beyond my wildest dreams! My co-stars, the legendary Karen Black, Jane Wiedlin ( of the Go-Go's) Susan traylor, Starina Johnson and Stacy Cunningham will all be at the premiere. I wish my cellmate, Mink Stole ( another life-long dream was to meet her and work with her!) could attend!

Two days later, on Feb 5 a show I am producing and performing on, Rockin' Bones, will be at The Dragonfly in Hollywood. The night is a benefit for my dear friend, artist Natasha Vetlugin, who had a severe accident in November, 2009, and broke MANY bones is now faced with massive hospital bills. See? I TOLD you about the drama! But Natasha is getting better too... she will actually be able to attend, and the line-up is stellar- the people on the bill are all wildly talented and in many cases, world-famous!

If you're in Los Angeles, I hope you can join me at both these events!