Anthropology of Bellydance: Wedding Procession, Zeffas, Shamadans

Anthropology of Belly dance: Shamadan and The Wedding Procession/ Zeffa

Hi everyone! In honor of wedding season, I thought I would start dedicating some blogs to wedding traditions and customs from across the world and from cultures where I often find myself as part of their wedding festivities. Today I was hoping to share with you some insights of the custom of wedding processions and how the shamadan (candelabra) fits into the procession.

Jillian and Lauren backstage at a  belly dance show at Taverna Opa City Place, West Palm Beach

Jillian and Lauren backstage at a  belly dance show at Taverna Opa City Place, West Palm Beach

Dawn of Belly dance Sirens and Imperial Bellydance performing a shamadan show at Greek Night in Boynton Beach

Dawn of Belly dance Sirens and Imperial Bellydance performing a shamadan show at Greek Night in Boynton Beach

Before getting into the shamadan, let’s discuss wedding processions for a moment. Now I am going to generalize here, I will get into specific cultural variations in future blogs, but in the generalized patrilocal, patrilineal cultures (Meaning that a woman joins her husband’s family i.e. takes his last name, and moves to where his family is located) the marriage used to, and in some cases still does, look like this: Usually there will be some sort of arrangements between families over the joining of their children and exchanges of money and dowery. The husband’s family will typically send money to help with wedding expenses as well as financially replace the loss of labor the family will experience losing their daughter. In some cases the husband’s family will also send the wedding dress to the bride.

After acceptance of this both man and wife will be prepared by their families in various beauty customs, applying henna, waxing or shaving of the body, special baths etc. The future husband will then create a procession of his friends and family and begin the trek to the bride’s house. Depending on how far away they are this can be a few moments or several days.

During this journey they will play instruments, sing songs and carry torches, unless they are very far, then this won’t be done till the enter the bride’s town. Meanwhile, at the bride’s house, she will have all of her relatives waiting with various charms for good luck, prosperity and fertility. Young children, especially those who’s parents are both alive. Once they arrive to the bride’s house there will usually be mock or real disagreements over letting the bride leave. She may refuse to leave or her relatives may block her. Often it is expected that she make a show since this will be one of the last time she is part of her parent’s house. Sometimes additional money is paid or treats given. Once it is accepted, the father will deliver his daughter to the husband and they will take her back to his town to be married or sometimes perform the marriage in her town then take her after the celebrations are complete. She takes with her a bride price( trousseau, hope chest etc) which is a chest full of useful things for married life which is taken by her new women when she arrives. The couple weds and celebrations ensue. Gifts linked to fertility or good marriage and practical gifts such as money and gold are given, entertainment and food is provided and then they leave to start their married life.

So where does a shamadan fit into all of this and why did I just give a cultural lesson? Because in case you didn’t already notice the similarities between wedding customs of your culture or not, the modern wedding is all of this often in a much more condensed fashion. To take this into a typical American wedding the traditions are the husband’s family pays for the wedding, he gives his future bride a gift (engagement ring) before the wedding, they go to their respected spas and salons to make sure they are fancy for their wedding night. If the bride is southern or has a terribly traditional family (such as me) she has had a hope chest or French trousseau since she was a child and different presents have been placed in it by her relatives throughout her life. Otherwise she has a bridal shower where she is given useful things for married life. She is led down the aisle by her father with a flower girl and ring bearer along side and then she has her reception where she is introduced for the first time as a part of her husband’s family. The wedding procession described before is now typically the first entrance of the bride and groom into the reception and where you will see a lot of the pomp and circumstance as well as merriment and joy making of the traditional procession.

Now the shamadan is, like most props used in belly dance, is not some ancient artifact but really something quite modern. They did not appear till the 20th century when it is thought that Zouba el Kloubatiyya was the first belly dancer to use a balanced candle prop on her head during a zeffa, wedding procession in Egypt.(Though Shafia al Coptia and Nezla el Adel both are thought to be the first or near the first) I will leave that debate for another blog. Regardless of who started the tradition, it quickly caught on and soon shamadans were a mainstay both in belly dance and wedding customs throughout the world.

Despite having a less than ancient tradition, the symbolic use of candles and torches is quite common among many marriage traditions around the world. The processions were often lit with torches and candles to both light the way, symbolically and figuratively, and add to the excitement of the procession. In line with being part of both a fun and exciting as well as almost ritual like custom the traditional shamadan dance would include both loose freestyle dance with the bride and groom while leading them into the reception to their chairs as well as a full theatrical dance with the shamadan. This would usually include “tricks” like splits and flexibility displays as well as floorwork. After Mahmoud Reda’s stylization of the Egyptian dances, the shamadan dance took a little more elegant and demure display but either variation is appropriate depending of course of the energy of the zeffa you happened to be involved in. The music can be anything from a live band that is part of the zeffa or the traditional zeffa rhythm which is often accompanied with the zilling of the belly dancer (4-4 Dum/ tek tek tek tek/ Dum/ tek tek). Of course, shamadan isn’t reserved exclusively for wedding receptions but can be used in theatrical or folkloric shows or just to give an incredible entrance!

What are your experiences with wedding processions and/or shamadans?







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