Finger cymbals, called ‘zills’ in Turkish and ‘sagat’ in Arabic, are firmly linked to belly dancing in the public’s mind, along with chiffon, sequins, and bare midriffs. Dancers, however, vary in attitudes about their use; a few dancers would never dance without them, others would never dance with them, and the rest fall somewhere in between.
My first teacher did not teach finger cymbals. She felt that wearing zills destroyed the lovely lines of the dancer’s hands and the graceful movements that should be made with them. Hand motions are one of the characterizing moves for belly dance, so deemphasizing them can lose the flavor of the dance. Furthermore, since we mostly danced to the classical belly dance pieces arranged for larger orchestras, the zills were either drowned out or competed and/or clashed with the music. Zills give a more ethnic feel and may not be appropriate for some presentations. Also, there’s nothing worse than a dancer whose zilling doesn’t stay with the beat or is uneven; it really distracts from the performance. So why use an item that is unnecessary and can be ugly and even detract from the dance? These are good points, and should be assessed when choosing dance elements.
However, a dancer should give herself the option of using the cymbals. When dancing in an open-air public environment, you quickly appreciate how useful zills are to get people’s attention, because they cut through the crowd noise with ease. The public knows the sound of an incipient bellydance performance and will gather ’round and listen up, so even if they’re not used in the dance, the cymbals are wonderful for starting a show. You don’t even have to be proficient at them!
As I became more aware of middle-eastern culture and the backgrounds of belly dance, I grew interested in dancing to live drumming or music. After all, recordings are a new technology and the dance has been around forever; all dancers used to dance to live music. There is respect for dancers who can produce their own music and more respect for those who can use it to interact and integrate with the band. A dancer responds to the band both through her dance and through her zilling, but the zilling makes it less of passive following. Then I came to realize that sometimes a dancer needs to assert her stage presence and keep those drummers in their place!
Finally, I see that it would be satisfying to be self contained, to produce my own dance music whenever I needed or felt like it. Producing the various rhythms requires study and skill; it’s a way to distinguish yourself among dancers. Also, you can zill in the background to support other dancers, and that’s nice, too. As an interesting side benefit, I’ve heard that zilling is a brain exercise that helps keep you sharp- I don’t know about that, but it’s a neat thought! So I’m starting to learn to zill and dance. Living in the same town as prominent ziller Z’Helene helps too; I’ve gotten her videos and am starting down the road to zilling- sometimes off beat, but moving to my own drummer. I mean ziller.