Fire, Candle and Candelabra Dance

This FAQ contains posts concerning a variety of topics relating to dancing with fire in some form. Various forms include dancing holding votive candles in each hand, balancing votive candles on one's head (on a tray, etc.), balancing a candelabra on one's head (an Egyptian folkloric tradition), or dancing with more open pots of fire.

Cultural/Historical Origins

"I'm hesitant to post on the 'meaning' of candle [and thus candle dance]. I have been taught things about it, but I'm not sure if they're fakelore or folklore... One area where there *is* an authentic, folkloric candle dance is Philippines dance. Ligaya/ Margie Story in Paducah, KY told me something about this one. There is apparently no 'deep symbolic meaning' (i.e. chasing out any possible dark spirits from the bride and groom's new home via candle dance, or anything like that), but it is traditional. Entertainers would pick up the candles at gatherings or gathering places and dance...they also hold them somewhat differently.

"I've heard Indian dance and Moroccan dance (I usually think of tray dance) cited as origins for candle. I've also heard the apocryphal 'dancer dances with candles in new residence of bride and groom' cited as being Armenian... Sounds too good to be true, but what do I know ;-) ..." --Shakira

"At the Ethnic Dance Festival here last year, I saw a Philippine dance that used fire, but not the candles in the glasses--I've only seen that in postcards and heard about it. The fire was in a bowl that one of the dancers carried in on her head. She did not dance with it--merely walked solemnly around the stage and then knelt and placed it on the floor. Even that simple gesture was impressive. She then picked it up after the dance and walked out with it on her head. The middle part of the dance was a group number and was very solemn--no smiles--and very old. I don't remember it's name and the meaning of the dance wasn't explained in the program. Perhaps an ancient ritual whose meaning is only half understood these days?" --Betsey/Halowah

"Re 'Raks al Shemadan' (Candelabrum Dance): purportedly originated by Zouba el Klobatiyya, who danced with a "klop" or lantern on her head & popularized by Shafiyya el Koptiyya (Shafiyya the Copt). Nazla el Adel learned from Zouba, Nadia Hamdi learned from her granny, who also learned from Zouba......." --Morocco I wrong in thinking that the Zeffa Al Arouss greatly predates the Shemadan itself? And that the use of candles in the procession (girls preceding the bride with candles, or people holding candles along the sides) is very, very old? I tried to find the answers in some of the articles, but, still being relatively wet behind the ears, ;-) if it's there, it's in magazines that predate me....
"Lane in MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF THE MODERN EGYPTIANS (1860 or so) talks about zeffa and has illustrations of the 'parade' of the bride to the baths, the bride to the groom's home, and all that other good stuff. I really didn't go back further than this since that really covered more than my thesis.

"The candles seem to be 'light against the darkness', jinns, and the evil eye. ARAMCO WORLD (Sept/Oct 1995 p 36) tells a story about how five candles are set into a bowl of henna paste "in accordance with the old saying 'khamsa wa khumaysah' which translates and expands roughly to 'five fingers poked in the evil [envying] eye'. Late in the evening the women walked in procession around Sanaa's apartment building, carrying the henna with the candles. Only then did they decorate her hands and feet."

"I know that candles were very important in the Christian Egyptian weddings that I studied here in the Carolina, and less important in for the Muslims. I didn't go into detail on this. I wonder if it's more related to religion here. However, (doncha just love how this goes on and on and on--I promise to finish soon) candle making for weddings in big business in Cairo. Maybe it's keeping the evil eye from the couple.

"For zeffa, we need to get Sahra (Riverside, CA) to comment. She's working on her degree at UCLA and is studying zeffa and also danced in Egypt."

Dianne (South Carolina)

"Yup, Zeffa el Aroussa precedes Raks al Shemadan by centuries & firelit/candle processions at weddings precede Islam & all other monotheistic religions by centuries/ages. IMHO [In my humble opinion] controlling/use of fire was one of the most important 'discoveries'/events (if not the most important) on the long, continuing road to anything vaguely resembling a human 'civilization'." --Morocco

Personal Meanings

"When I do candle, I try to think of all the ritual uses and meanings of fire and incense. Fire can be the raging forest fire or the gentle, welcome light of a candle in a window. It can be the heat of the volcano or the fire-like sprinkle of fireflies over a meadow at can be the life-giving heat of a hearth fire, or a cleansing fire, or a hypnotic fire...there are various ancient goddesses of home, hearth--and even forge. It can be the fire of life, the spark of life, in us all--these are the things I think about when I perform candle. Since I don't know a folkloric tradition to set it to. I try to give it a theme, instead of just 'stupid people tricks'--'look what I can do, whoopee'. Feeling makes the difference." --Shakira

"In terms of mood, I think the music is the most important element of your creative mix and you need to pick the music that fits your own interpretation of fire and go from there...In my interpretation, I concentrate on the warmth and romance fire can bring to us all as well as thinking about symbolizing the movements of the flames. Just remember that the candles are extensions of your arms and try to keep your body energy flowing out to where the flames flicker." --Betsey/Halowah


Teaching techniques

"When I teach candle dancing I start my students with their unlit candles. ONCE they have progressed to some level of balance, then I switch them to half full votive holders of water. Only when they can go through the moves smoothly, without getting wet, do I think of lighting the candles!

"Of course this only works with the flat palm two candle dancing. I have found no real subtitute for candleabra dancing. Both styles of candle dancing take alot of practice before you are even proficent.

"Oh, yes, I also insist that we learn this with no shoes! This will allow you to feel & balance better." --Thais Banu

"Paper cups filled with water are good, then glasses filled with water." --Betsey/Helwa


"ALWAYS use pure white candles; those that have no dye in them...[thus] any wax on clothing can simply be ironed out. (Do NOT do this with colored candles--it will set the dye.)" --Kenya

"Keep the wicks trimmed short so the amount of flame is low and burns less wax. Also there is a candle company in North Hollywood CA (I think it's General Wax & Candle) that makes candles that are honeycomb in cross section. This gives the melted wax a channel to flow into inside of the candle. once the channels fill up (about half way) I recycle them. I've seen them sold at Cost Less Imports." --jvonfurs

"Here's a trick someone figure out for me...having problems with your candles blowing out??? Go to a magic store and buy the 'trick' candles. Then drill a hole through your regular 'fat' votive candle and slide in the 'trick' candle.

"There's also the 'fake' candles which some local dancers figured out (makes your fire marshals happy). Purchase those little brass candle holders from Michaels [a craft store, I believe], you know the little rounded ones....then wire up a couple of a-cell batteries and a tiny lantern lamp." --Chala

Candle Holders

"I usually look for a good heavy-bottomed holder that will balance on my head. It's easier to teach students with deep votive holders; the flames will not blow out as easily as they will with candles open to the air, not down inside holders. The less top-heavy, the more bottom-heavy, the better. I prefer clear holders 'cause they'll go with all costumes. And I prefer real candle holders rather than drinking glasses 'cause they're less likely to crack if the flame briefly touches the glass.... metal holders can get *warm*." --Shakira

"Technically, I prefer simple, round, clear and wide drinking glasses (I think they're called Old Fashioned glasses or whiskey sour glasses) with wide and fairly heavy bottoms. Make sure you have a strong-burning kind of voltive candle (experiment around with what you canfind locally) that won't peter out in the middle of your number. I even burn mine down about halfway. Otherwise, the flame flickers over the top of the glass and I figure for safety's sake that you need to contain it below the level of the rim.... I have seen dancers perform with open flame (using little shallow bowl-like ceramic lamps) but I myself prefer the glasses that reallly contain the flame more around the sides. It's still a dramatic effect but much safer. There is also less chance the flame will blow out when you dance." --Betsey/Halowah


"I have never done this, but have a friend who does. She practiced for a long time with unlit candles, adjusting things here and there so that the appliance didn't wobble nor the candles fall out.

"The thing she always tells people is to make sure you put the candles in the freezer, and take them out as close to showtime as possible. This greatly reduces the drips. No matter what you do, it will drip some. I know we spent hours one time scraping candlewax off an expensive dance floor after one of her dances. She reserves one costume for this -- and it has dots of wax all over it. I'd say the wax is of greater concern to her than the fire ever was!" --Cheshme Bulbul

Pots & Bowls of Fire, Warnings

"Azur Aja and Armana do dances with firepots and bowls or trays of fire (probably sterno but you'd have to ask them). I once investigated dancing with a bowl of magician's fire...the club didn't like the idea. ;-)" --Shakira

"I saw a dancer (sorry I can't remember the name) several years ago who used a brass bowl with what I think was denatured alcohol in it. The dance was very dramatic; she started with the alcohol unlit and after dancing with this bowl for a minute or two, she dipped her finger in the alcohol (fire marshals would be having fits) and lit the alcohol on her finger with a nearby lighted candle and then brought her lit finger over and ignited the bowl of alcohol. Watch the hair and veils folks, and make sure the timing is just right or those fingers are going to get a tad warm!!!!!!" --Angus

"Oooh!! Only for the very brave, the assured, or the foolish [referring to Angus' post, above]! Tasha Banat also had an article in Jareeda [magazine] several years ago on how she got a trip to the Denver Burn Unit when some lighted liquid fuel in the headpiece she was using for a fire dance spilled onto her costume top, mid-performance no less, and with her children in the audience." --Andrea R.

"I've seen Armana (now residing in the Tampa area) do this style of dance on several occasions over the years. She also has a headpiece that serves a dual purpose--1) it's very slightly concave on top to help keep the bowl on top of her head, and 2) it's lined with a fabric to help cut down on the heat transfer from the bowl to her head! (I'm sure it's not asbestos, but probably something like it.)

"It is true that it's very dramatic and seems to fascinate American audiences in particular, but Armana has told me some horror stories about working with this stuff. She truly risks herself every time she does it and has ended up in the hospital with serious burns on at least one occasion.... In her case it was not that she was careless, but (if I remember the story correctly) I believe it was a waiter or a patron at the restaurant she was performing at who actually 'caused' (if you will) the mishap. It doesn't have to be 'your fault' for something to happen to you!

"Armana is NO BEGINNER and is a highly respected and experienced dancer and teacher--I'm sure she would approve of the advice I'm passing on to you. If you should attempt this, (and personally I'm not!), NEVER do it alone (make sure someone is standing right there with you when you practice), remember that a little bit of the 'stuff' goes a long way, and keep a charged fire extinguisher (not just a glass of water) at the ready!

"It sounds exciting but no amount of excitement would be workth one of my sisters or brothers in the dance being harmed! I love you all!" --Dhirana

"I've been doing the candle dance with the votive glasses for years and I'd NEVER attempt dancing with a bowl full of lit alcohol. It would be doubly foolish to try this in a restaurant. I agree with Dhirana. My rationale has always been--if some dance element has a risk that could permanently affect my health or appearance or could hurt--I don't do it!! There are many other exciting illusions we can perform in total safety.

"At the most dramatic moments in ANY dancer's routine there is frequently some cultural philistine in a restaurant or club audience or someone who has had too much of the other kind of alcohol who chooses that moment to brush past you in their frantic dash for the loo. One time I was in a spin, holding the candles in outstretched hands and balancing a third glass with a lit candle on my head in the middle of the restaurant and someone literally lurched into me. I have NO IDEA how I kept the glass on my head but I did. It goes to show that when you choreograph with fire you had better plan for any contingency. Luckily, if the glasses fall, the votive candle fire generally goes out, but then you have to face dancing amid broken glass unless the restaurant has thick soft rugs and the glass lands there and doesn't break.

"As for the bowl of alcohol--I'd suggest saving that one for stage performances. I should mention that I am always courteous to my audience BUT after my performance was finished, I had (polite) words with the man who literally walked into me. I informed him that there are certain courtesies an audience should observe with a live performer and safety considerations, too, where fire is concerned. He seemed surprised, then apologized and apparently was totally oblivious about what could happen. My advice is--if you are trying something like this in a restaurant, assume a restaurant patron might behave like this someday (out of ignorance) and take steps ahead of time.

"It's also surprising how oblivious waiters can be, especially when you dance with a sword. Nothing serious has ever happened to ME with either candles or sword but there have been some near misses with distracted waiters almost walking into the sword!! ('and the special today, ladies and gentlemen, is SHISHKABOB!!')" --Betsey/Halowah


"The few times I have worked with fire, I have not been concerned with flame retardant material; however, I usually put my hair in a turban and do not wear long sleeves." --Kahena

"I'd be careful with what arm decorations or sleeves you choose to wear. Be sure nothing flows or dangles into the flame! Be sure nothing restricts your arm movements." --Betsey/Helwa

"...Soraya al Musri (now of Oklahoma City) made a costume once that created the best "fire imagery" I've seen in a costume, without the actual flame!

"The skirt was very full (at least 7 yds I'm sure) and veil was at least 3 yards - both were 100% silk. They were dyed beautifully - (on the skirt) crimson at the hem, then red, then orange, then yellow-gold, and finally yellow at the hip. One color blended so well into the next that it was hard to tell where one color ended & the next began. The veil was done the same way.

"Her bra & belt were hand beaded with red, orange, gold & yellow beads - about 4" fringe if I remember correctly. The fringe did the same color progression as the skirt/veil, and the top edge of the belt was shaped like flames lapping up around her hips! The top edge of the bra was also shaped like flames across the top of the cups.

"It was a breathtaking costume & I used to tell her she should dance to "Al Anar" (I'm on Fire) off of Oriental Fantasy in it! She danced in it a couple of times & sold it to some lucky gal. Thought it fit into this "Fire Imagery" thread & might lend some "costuming inspiration" to someone! : )" --Chandara Gamal

Last Modified: 15 Jun 1997
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