Bring up finger cymbals among a group of belly dancers and you are likely to get responses on two ends of the spectrum. Folks typically either love them or hate them. While finger cymbals were an absolutely integral part of every belly dance show back in the 70s and 80s, they fell out of favor a bit over the next couple of decades. I’m excited to say though, that finger cymbals are making a comeback as dancers in many segments of the community are exploring and embracing this ancient instrument.
So let’s talk about zills, shall we? I invite you to join me as we explore how to get started with a solid foundation, understand how the finger cymbals are used, and discover how to find joy in the learning process.
Setting a Solid Foundation
If my early finger cymbal experience taught me anything, it’s this: Begin as early as possible.
Zills were put into my hands within a couple week of my first class and I am eternally grateful
that they were. I’ve never known the dance without them.
Not everyone has the advantage of diving into zills early in their dance studies, but no matter where you are in your journey, NOW is a great time to learn.
The other thing I’ve learned from my two decades spent teaching others the joy of finger
cymbals it’s this: It’s never too late.
Here are my top suggestions to set yourself up for success.
Find a set of zills that you LOVE to listen to. If you don’t like how they sound you are not going to enjoy your practice. Resist the temptation to purchase the cheapest set you find on Amazon.
My absolute favorites are the Saroyan Nefertitis for beginners and the Saroyan Afghanis for
more advanced zillers. Explore the Saroyan website to hear what all of their cymbals sound like so you can choose the ones that call to you the most.
Let yourself PLAY. Come to your practice with a beginner’s mindset, intense curiosity and allow yourself to have fun! Zills make lots of sounds – explore the sounds and timbres of your set and experiment with patterns, rhythms and movement as you play with and without music. Rings, Ticks and Clacks are just a few of the many sounds your finger cymbals are capable of. Search out finger cymbals instructors who are well-versed in the many creative aspects of the cymbals, and feel free to openly explore in your practice.
Feeling the beat of the music is essential to good zill playing. If this is a challenge for you, take the time to learn how to clap along to the music in time with the tempo or the drums. (This will also benefit your dancing a bunch too!) If you have a hard time finding the beat in a song, it will be very challenging to put zills to it. Take the time to learn to hear the “heartbeat” of the rhythm so you can use it when you play. A great way to do this is to listen for the heavy strokes in the drum rhythm and see if you can count the steady beats from when the drum pattern begins to where it ends.
While all practice is good practice, I highly recommend making time to regularly play your
cymbals while moving (as opposed to sitting down). Keep it simple at first. Learn to play your
zills on the beat of the music – “ 1, 2, 3, 4” and then subdivide that – “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” while you mark time with your body by walking in place or doing a simple step touch. The sooner you introduce movement into the zill equation the easier it will be to do both at the same time!
Once playing evenly with the beat feels comfortable, move on to play a basic rhythm like 16 the note runs or the Gallop while you continue to mark time with your body and add simple dance movements.
When you are learning a new skill and you want to add it to your dancing, something will have to be placed on auto pilot. If the finger cymbals are new choose a movement that you can do without thinking.
When you feel ready to add music to your practice, know that you can choose to play zills with any music that make your hips shake! I highly recommend starting with music that you really understand and can feel. I have students who have found success in their finger cymbal playing by playing to classical music, 80s music and even heavy metal! There is no need to start with music that feels foreign to you.
Above all, try to have fun with the process! Science has proven that we learn faster when we
are having fun… So don’t forget to have fun! And remember - the learning process is the entire point. Let go of the imaginary finish line and enjoy the small, incremental, day-to-day
improvements. That’s what learning is all about.
When to play your finger cymbals:
For many years “all the time” was my answer to this question. Now I understand that the
cymbals are a musical instrument that should be used as a part of the greater ensemble and
add to - but not overtake - the music. (My love of acapella finger cymbal playing is another
topic for another article!)
Finger cymbals are most commonly played with upbeat music that has a predominant rhythmic element like drums. Listen to some popular belly dance music and you may even hear the finger cymbals in the recording! Slower pieces that have a more ballad-like quality are often not as well-suited for finger cymbal accompaniment.
When playing your zills with live or recorded music, always listen closely to what the ensemble is doing. The cymbals are beautiful accompaniment when the larger ensemble is playing and when the percussion is active as well. In softer, quieter moments, during instrumental taqasim, or when the voice is the predominant focus, it is often better to keep the finger cymbals very simple or silent. Oftentimes the chorus can be a great place to play, while the verses may be best left more open so the melody can shine through.
Think of your cymbals as another instrument that is adding to the music and choose to play
them in a way that enhances the overall composition.
Why every dancer should learn to play the finger cymbals:
The finger cymbals are an ancient instrument that have ties to our dance that extend back over 5000 years. And while they may not be on the top of every dancer’s list of skills to learn, they are essential to the artform, even if you eventually choose not to use them often.
Understanding how to play the finger cymbals and their relationship with the music will allow
you to understand and interact with music – both live and recorded - in a deeper and more
meaningful way. This will improve not only your zill playing, but your dancing as well.
Are you ready to get started with your finger cymbals and you want the solid foundation you
need to eventually really rock on this magnificent instrument? I invite you to check out my FREE finger cymbal jumpstart course at SahiraBellyDances.com/ZillStar
And if you’d like a little peak at my favorite kind of finger cymbal playing – acapella style – I
invite you to watch this video! Enjoy!
Follow me online @SahiraBellyDances on Facebook and Instagram or come visit my website at SahiraBellyDances.com I’d love to connect with you there!
Hello there! I’m Sahira.
I am a lifelong performer…I got my start on stage with local pageants when I was three and have never stopped jumping onto stages! I love music and theater (I love acapella vocals, Renaissance flute and Shakespeare plays most of all) and of course, belly dance!
I began belly dancing full-time after being laid off quite suddenly from my cushy environmental engineering job in 2001. I had only been dancing for one year and was scared to death…but I figured I had nothing to lose! So I packed my belongings into storage, moved out of my apartment and started dancing at Renaissance Festivals all around the country. (I didn’t really know where else I could dance at the time!)
Fast forward a few years and, tired of living in a tent, I landed back in Houston and began teaching and performing all over town. At one point I was dancing 5 nights a week, sometimes up to 7 shows in an evening! In 2005, I released my first instructional DVD and shortly after was invited to teach and perform all around the world. In 2006 I even had the honor of being the first tribal instructor ever invited to teach at the largest belly dance festival in the world: Ahlan We Sahlan, in Cairo, Egypt.
These days I choose to focus my energies on teaching this beautiful art form to people here in Houston and all over the globe through my online studio at Learn.SahiraBellyDances.com. This platform has allowed me to collect my 20+ years of experience in technique, choreography, zills (my personal favorite!) and more into a convenient library of educational videos. But above all else I believe I am known for my warm and inviting energy, amazing organizational skills, and my tendency towards the ridiculous.
I am also the proud co-owner of Bella Donna Dance, voted Houston ’s Best Belly Dancers by the Houston Press and founder and director of Houston’s premiere Tribal Style troupe, Urban Hipsy.
What I love best about teaching is watching a student grow into their dance – from that first “ah-ha” moment, to seeing them dance with a confidence that they never thought they had. This dance is so wonderfully empowering and can be enjoyed by people from all walks of life. I’ve gained balance, confidence, poise, and come to appreciate my body and who I am… and you can too!
I look forward to helping YOU learn and love this dance that means so much to me.