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Finger Cymbals, Who Me?

by Nizana El Rassan My first teacher, Azura (WA), was an American Cabaret style dancer, and this is where I was first introduced to finger cymbals. I vividly recall her wrapped in a veil, playing them in time with the music. Since then, I have incorporated the use of “zils” in my dancing, and it feels natural to me. I’ve been encouraged to play zils more, and now that we’re starting to dance in person again, I just might!

Dancing with finger cymbals is enjoyed by several styles of belly dance. A couple of workshops I took stand out in regards to finger cymbals, also known as “sagat” in Egyptian, called “zils” by many. One workshop I took at the Hawaii Belly Dance Convention was with Marguerite (CA), also in the AmCab style, teaching how to play finger cymbals while holding a veil. I had originally learned this with Azura, and you don’t see that happening that much anymore. Troupe Arabesque (FL) recently displayed their talents in this style, and it was great to see! The other workshop that stands out to me was with Saqra (OR/WA/TX) who taught an extremely comprehensive workshop on finger cymbals. Saqra broke down the different styles of finger cymbals from a structural standpoint, to playing them to caring for them.

There are many things to consider when playing finger cymbals. Some dancers concentrate on patterns, some of which are pretty complex. Others focus on ME rhythms and yet others play to keep time with a steady non-changing pattern. Different sizes, materials and shapes make different sounds. So does playing different parts of the zils. Playing loud zils in a closed environment can be a bit much, and smaller, quieter zils may be more appropriate in this case. Whereas, at outdoor festivals, bigger or louder finger cymbals may be more appropriate. Taking classes and workshops, watching videos and reading articles to understand more about this topic, along with practice, will help you in this regard.

Other things to consider include caring for them. For example, you need to keep an eye on your elastic/finger loops and change them out as they get stretched out, worn, wet or frayed. There are different tips on what to use besides pieces of elastic such as stretchy hair ties. Play around and see what works for you. Test drive them and make sure they are fitting well. Flying zils can be dangerous for troupe members or the audience. I heard of one dancer whose zil flew off and landed in a wall sconce. Two points! Better than someone’s forehead. You also want to keep them clean and polished and there are tips out there on what works best. Saroyan Cymbals actually offer their own “Saroyan Zil Polish.”

Always carry a backup pair if you plan to perform with finger cymbals. You never know when one is going to wander off like the lost sock in the dryer, or maybe your elastic breaks at the last second. Be prepared. When performing, break up the zil playing with different levels of sound and pauses of no playing at all, especially when the music calls for it. Play with the music, not over it. Keep an eye on your audience, some people are sound sensitive and you may want to not zil to close to them.

Even with all the things to consider, playing finger cymbals is not only fun, it can be very complimentary to the music and dance, when played well. Poor playing can drive musicians nuts, confuse and distract the audience and throw your dancing off. I have witnessed some poor and mediocre playing and I have also been privy to some fabulous performances with zils. The first one that blew me away as a baby belly dancer was Aurelia (WA) where she did a backbend and zilled the floor, and more recently I saw an exceptional acapella finger cymbal performance online. Finger cymbals are an integral part of this dance, and I was thrilled to see a large percentage of dancers at a recent event playing zils in AmCab, American style and ATS performances! So get that zil maintenance going and practice to perform!

Nizana has long been involved in Middle Eastern Dance as a performer, instructor, student, troupe director, choreographer, event producer, and competition judge. Nizana's articles and reviews have been published in seven Belly Dance magazines and newsletters including Fanoos! Having studied with a wide variety of instructors, in addition to performing Egyptian flavored American Style Belly Dance, Nizana dabbles in folkloric and fusion styles. She is known for her expressiveness and connection to the audience. Nizana is available for instruction and has workshops scheduled in Florida and Washington State.

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