I love Raks El Shamadan! The drama of a dancer with fire balanced on her head is fun for everyone. It's a traditional dance in Egypt for leading the bride and groom from the ceremony to the reception (even if that's just through a hotel lobby), but can also be performed on stage.
Learn more about the dance itself from Sahra Saeeda (sign up & receive her Zeffat al 'Arusah primer). UK dancer Candi has excellent information on her website, too.
Whether for a wedding or a stage performance, one thing is certain, you need your equipment to be in excellent working order. Here are some tips and tricks, learned from Candi, troupemates, and my own trial-and-error.
1. The shamadan. Buy it in person, if at all possible. Ask around in your bellydance community if anyone has one for sale, but try it on, first. I recommend this because there's only so much adjusting and padding you can do to make it fit properly. The head frame on my first shamadan was way too big; I tried to find a local metalworker to adjust it, but with no luck. I ended up selling it and starting over. Lucky for me, Scheherezade Imports is only an hour away, so I was able to try on my current shamadan. If this is not an option, ask for measurements before you order. Measure the circumference of your head (above your eyebrows) and from between your eyebrows to the corresponding location on the back of your head. You DO want the shamadan frame to be larger than these measurements to allow for padding (for comfort and stability), but anything more than 2" larger may be challenging to fit correctly.
USA vendors who sell shamadans:
Dahlal.com - My current shamadan, purchased from Scheherezade Imports, is this style and works well for me, but test the arms to make sure they will stay put.
TurquoiseIntl.com - I love the look of these, but don't have personal experience with them.
Almanar Shamadan (Germany) - Again, I don't have personal experience with these, but have heard good reviews and like how adjustable the headbands are.
2. Make it fit. I removed the built-in foam padding that came with my shamadan. I cut strips of molefoam padding and applied them inside the frame to fill the gaps between the frame and my head. In some areas, I applied 2-3 layers. Don't forget the space at the top of your head. Depending on the shamadan style, there may be a bolt and nut here and you don't want that pressing into your scalp.
3. The candles. Real or fake? Real is obviously more dramatic, but some situations/venues won't allow live flames. Be prepared with both.
REAL candles - Go for tapers that are 6 inches or shorter. You can break off taller candles, if necessary. Do NOT use real tealights. I have been really happy with these 6 inch candles. From the movement of the shamadan, the wax does fall down the sides, but seems to catch itself and stay with the candle. Trader Joe's sells boxes of 10" "dripless, self-extinguishing" candles in white or cream. There are 8 per box. (Break these to make them shorter; 10 inches is too tall for most shamadan styles.)
FAKE candles - Battery type will dramatically affect the overall weight of the shamadan and your ability to balance it. If possible, use candles that have "button" batteries (or watch batteries). I have tried three different fake candles.
6.25" wax-dipped, using AA batteries (not included) - I like the look of these, but they are heavy at 2.5 oz. each. Nine candles = 22.5 oz., which is close to 1.5 pounds.
5.5", using button batteries (included) - The flame part is not as large, but flickers like the 6.25" version. I really like that they turn on/off by pushing in the flame. Also, they weigh only .9 oz. each, so your total for nine candles is barely over 7 oz., almost a whole pound less than the AA battery style. This style has a stake at the bottom, so plan to cut off at least the tip to make it fit into the shamadan candle holder.
Flameless tea light candles, button batteries included - These will not give you the impact of the taper candles, however, they will work well for performing with a group. They are much more economical when you need at least nine for each dancer and they still provide a nice flicker effect. Because we used these on a stage, we opted for the brighter, whiter light.
4. Fix the candles to the shamadan. Nobody wants to see your candles topple over, and you certainly don't want wax raining down on you! Troupemate Sama bought a block of Eletrical Conduit or Duct Sealant for the whole troupe to use and it worked really well. It's SUPER sticky, have some baby wipes ready for your fingers, but that's a good thing. At my local Home Depot, I bought a block for less than $4. You can also try Candle Fitter, Blu-Tack, or even melting wax into the holder, then sticking the candle in. Whatever you use, practice with it extensively before taking it public.
Now, do your homework regarding music, movements, costuming, etc. If you're going to invest money and time into dancing with a shamadan, do it right! Once you are confident with it, it can be so much fun, plus an asset for marketing yourself for wedding gigs.
Suggested music: The Wedding, The Arabian Wedding, Zaffa, Raks El Shamadan
Start with this excellent article by Lucy "Scheherezade" and Gamila El Masri.
Princess Farhana's shamadan article
More Candelabra advice