"You don't see a lot of it, not even in Egypt," admits Jihan Jamal. "They think of it as a dying art." Dressed in a black leotard with a long scarf-like affair tied at the waist, Jamal (her professional name) could be any dance instructor in any mirror-lined dance studio anywhere on the planet. Except she's probably one of the few -- certainly the only one in Miami Beach on this particular Saturday afternoon -- with a candelabrum sitting atop her head. Kind of Carmen Miranda under the influence of Liberace.
FYI, the "it" Jamal refers to is the Raks Shamadan (Dance of the Candelabrum), a sensational little Vegas-by-way-of-Cairo number that she'll demonstrate as part of an Egyptian Dance Workshop she'll conduct this Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.
Interested parties should check their come-with-me-to-the-casbah notions of what Westerners term "belly dancing" at the door. Cuban-born, Miami-raised Jamal, who heads the five-member local Jihan Jamal Egyptian Dance Theater professional troupe, teaches what she calls the "Baladi" (the people's dance) or "homestyle" technique of Near and Middle Eastern dance. "In homestyle dancing," she explains, "there's not too much choreography. Usually the woman stays in one spot, doing very fast hip movements while her hands are gentle and feminine. Basically the dance itself has a lot of pelvic movement, because the pelvic area is where the woman creates life."
According to Jamal, the Raks Shamadan, a dance in the Baladi style, was created in the 1850s by an Egyptian dancer who performed wearing high heels made of gold. Jamal will not be sporting similar footwear on Saturday when she shimmies and shakes it on down to the ground for what she anticipates will be a group of advanced and professional dancers who want to, as she describes it, "expand their repertoire. [The workshop] will be geared to people who have already been introduced to this type of dancing," she notes. "It creates sort of a mystery or a magic to see a woman being able to move and yet have these long tapered candles lit on her head. This shows how well a woman can move while keeping a very fine posture." (That fine posture, incidentally, can be maintained balancing not only a caldelabrum, but also a sword or a cane or a jug.)
Jamal pops a CD into a nearby boombox, cues up Hossam Ramzy's "Daughter of the Sultan," steadies the six-pound unlighted candelabra on her head, slides on some finger cymbals, and waits for the song's rhythmic cadences to kick in. The nine-candle candelabra is attached at the crown to a metal tiaralike headdress that wraps around the circumference of the head; it can be tightened or loosened to accommodate comfort. Even outfitted with only eight new white candles -- Jamal says the ninth holder is chock-a-block with wax gunk -- it looks, well, at the very least unwieldy.
Finally, as tambourines and other percussion instruments send "Daughter of the Sultan" into overdrive, Jamal begins the Raks Shamadan, all fluid arms and gyrating hips. As promised, she stays pretty much in one spot, eschewing the every-which-way-including-loose histrionics associated with belly dancing in favor of a more graceful, sensual presentation. Candelabrum firmly in place, she gradually descends to her knees, then turns to lie on one side, undulating all the while. Now she shifts to her other side and whips off some leg quivers and machine-gun butt shakes. As the song winds down, she rises to her feet.
"I'm totally in love with the Egyptian style of dance," Jamal says with a contented sigh. "And I believe there's not enough of the authentic stuff here." Still, she emphasizes that workshop attendees will not be restricted to learning the Raks Shamadan. More than anything, she wants to instill in her pupils a sense of "integrity of posture in dancing." To that end, she plans to "bring some heavy books for the girls to balance on their heads." Uh oh: Pygmalion goes Eastern.