BALANCED PROPS AND ORIENTAL DANCE
How to select, use and store your props
BY PRINCESS FARHANA
The use of balanced props can add spectacular dimension and depth to your performance. Incorporating a balanced prop into your show can definitely give a “wow!” aspect to your show, but there are certain things to consider before you hit the stage. For instance, you may want to combine your balancing skills with floor work. To perform floor work successfully, you will need a lot of strength in your upper arms and thighs. Make sure you are thoroughly warmed up and have the necessary strength to move slowly and deliberately as you perform. Aside from strength, the technique needed for mastering the use of balanced props may take anywhere between months and years of intensive work. This is something that cannot be rushed or forced. You need to practice faithfully. You will also need to take a hard look at your performance space. A stage is optimal, for your own safety as well as the safety of your audience. . Not to mention the fact that if you are doing floor work in your routine, most of the audience will not be able to see you if you are not on a raised stage. If you are performing on a dance floor, say at a wedding or private party, make sure that the emcee or deejay announces that the floor be cleared before you perform. This is not the time to be dodging waiters or unruly toddlers! Wearing ballet slippers or dance shoes is a good idea, too. Getting a bead or piece of glass in your bare foot is never a pleasant experience, but it can be really unfortunate if you are attempting to balance a prop! Here is an over-view of the most commonly used balanced props- how to select them, use them safely, and care for them.
Before you buy a sword, or scimitar (a larger, sharply curved sword), make sure it is correctly balanced. Swords are easy to test: a sword that isn’t balanced at all will fall flat on your hand (or head) making it completely useless. One that is balanced properly will stand straight on its blade. If a sword isn't balanced properly, it may lean and will be more prone to wobble. Sometimes, you can kind of tweak the handle with your hand or a screwdriver (some are loose) and get it into correct balance; with some swords, you can actually take the entire handle off, turn it upside down, and it will balance better, but it may be awkward to hold. Some swords are made especially for dancing and/or decoration, and are usually lighter and smaller than real military ones. Smaller or used swords usually cost somewhere between $30-$100.00, larger scimitars or antiques may cost more than $100.00. However, if it isn't balanced, don't buy it, there are plenty around that are.
Swords should be stored, if possible, laying flat on the floor or shelf, or on a wall-rack (you can sometimes find specially designed display racks at military or antique shops). If you store swords standing on their end, they may fall over and if this happens, they could get jarred out of perfect balance. If this occurs, try playing with the handle. When you get it where you want, you may want to glue it in place. In order to balance the sword on your head, try it with a mirror and find the balance point, which is usually a little off- center because of the weight of the handle, and mark it with a little dot of magic marker if you want. Some swords are scored at the balance point, making them easier to keep on top of your head, but you could also glue a small piece of sandpaper or Velcro onto the blade to keep it from sliding around on your hair. Some people lightly wax the balance point- you can also take surfboard wax or even a candle, and rub it on the blade and get the same results. Some dancers like to wear a turban or tightly wrapped headscarf when dancing with a sword. In a cabaret performance, you may want to wear a fall; it will help keep it from siding around on your head, especially during spins. It is NEVER a good idea to try out a new head-wrap or wig before a show- make sure to rehearse with it until you are completely comfortable with it before hitting the stage. Once onstage, remember to go slow, and adjust the sword when necessary. It’s still impressive, and not nearly as embarrassing as having a sword falling off! If you do happen to drop your sword, DO NOT GRAB FOR IT! Even a blade that isn't sharp can injure you if caught at a bad angle. Duck out of the way of a falling sword, the point can hurt you. Calmly pick it up, put it back on, and continue your dance. While dancing, especially during floor work, takes the time necessary to re-adjust your skirts under yourself, the last thing you need is to get distracted by fabric bunching around your legs. Pantaloons or harem pants are also a good idea, either by them or under your skirt, so you don't "flash" and put on more of a show than you intended to!
Shamadans (candelabrum) are traditionally used in the Egyptian wedding procession, or zeffah. In the centuries before electricity was used, dancers would balance large, lit-up candelabrum on top of their heads, to illuminate the bride and groom’s faces during their first appearance as man and wife.
For an imported shamadan, expect to pay anywhere between $100.00-$300.00, 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 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. Never leave one in your car or trunk- 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 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 a tweezers. After every use, clean out the candle's drip-cups, (use a butterknife and pry the dried wax out) or the wax will build up and be more prone to spill onto your hair. Some of the candleholders may be loose- wrap your candles with tinfoil for a snug fit. Longer candles 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!
When dancing at a wedding or on a stage, avoid air-conditioning vents as it will blow the hot wax onto you! Also be careful of ceiling and doorway clearance, and of course, be very careful of draperies! Also- makes sure to thoroughly check with your venue concerning fire/insurance laws. Many places do not allow open flames. In this case, you can purchase battery-operated candles (from a craft shop or florist supply store) but note that these candles will be much heavier and more difficult to balance.
As far as costuming goes, if you aren't used to wearing a shamadan, don't pick a costume where the wax drips will show or ruin it. Many beledy dresses made in Egypt are made of netting, which is easy to pick the dried melted way from. - Of course, these are best if you don’t want to stain your costume. When using real 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.
POTS AND JUGS
Jug dances, such as Egyptian folkloric beloss or Tunisian and North African folkloric dance call for the performer to balance a pot on her head. Metal or paper mache pots or jugs are good for stage use because they won't shatter if you happen to drop them. You can also take a plastic fruit juice jug, and weight it with a baggie full of dry rice or beans, and paint it to look like a ceramic pot. If you’re really proficient, you could use a ceramic pot or jug, but odds are it won't be flat on the bottom. A headscarf, which is also authentic for North African folkloric dance, may make your pot more stable. You can also stick some Velcro on the bottom of the pot to hold it on better.
Tray dancing involves the balance of a large circular tray, usually with a tea set or lit candles balanced on top of it, and are performed as a North African folkloric dance. The larger the tray (usually brass or some kind of metal) the more impressive-looking. However, you need to pick one out to suit your height. Most trays come in many different sizes. Because of the objects on top of the tray, and their propensity for sliding around, a little smaller is usually better. These trays can usually be found at import stores.
Egyptian dancing canes, or assaya, are used in folkloric Saidi dance, or sometimes as part of a cabaret show. They are swung around in a manner similar to a majorette twirling a baton, but when using a cane, most of the swinging action will come from the wrist, not the shoulder. During the dance, they can also be balanced on the head- though this is much trickier than you would think! Canes tend to roll, and combined with the fact that they are very light, make them iffy at best to balance. To successfully get one to balance on your head, you must keep your shoulders, neck and head very stable.
Most canes are made of light bamboo wrapped with some kind of metallic trim or tape. To keep this from unraveling, take clear postage or packaging tape and wrap the entire cane with it. Canes are inexpensive, in the range of $5.00-$15.00. To choose one to buy, make sure the cane is straight, not bent or curved, and that it is not too long for your height. It should come up to the top of your hipbone. If yours is a little taller, you can saw the end-tip off, but since canes are not hard to come by, it’s easier to just get one that “fits” your height. For safety while practicing (so the cane won't swing out of your hand) wrap a couple of rubber bands tightly around the straight end of the cane. Canes can be stored standing up.
It is imperative to your own safety, and the safety of your audience-not to mention your own good showmanship- to rehearse with your balanced prop until it is second nature. So, practice, practice, practice, and then go get ‘em, girl!
Princess Farhana is an internationally- known performer specializing in dancing with balanced props. She has a line of seven instruction/performance DVD’s, including three devoted specifically to balancing swords and shamadan. For more information, visit princessfarhana.com
bio - news - pictures - articles - videos - showcase - schedule - workshop and events - contact - links
(c) Pleasant Gehman