To Zil or Not to Zil

Zils (or zills, finger cymbals, sagat, etc) are small brass cymbals that are worn on the fingers of bellydancers and are played in time to the music as she dances. Bellydance and other related forms of Middle Eastern dance are the only ones in the world that utilize metal finger cymbals as part of the dance. (Flamenco, with its Moorish roots, is somewhat similar with its wooden castanets).

There are some bellydance teachers who feel that playing finger cymbals is such an essential part of bellydancing that it must be taught to the beginning student right from the first lesson. However, there are many excellent bellydancers who can’t play zils, or who don’t care to play zils, and still qualify as accomplished bellydancers.

Personally, I feel that mastering finger cymbals is well worth the effort (and believe me, for most of us, it is an effort in the beginning!). There are many benefits to acquiring this skill, such as:
*Increased dexterity and strength in your fingers, hands, and arms.
*Stress reduction from focusing your mind on the counterpoint  between the music and your zils.
*Improved coordination between mind and body.
*Exhilaration, from finally mastering bellydancing with finger cymbals!

Another benefit to playing zils while dancing is how an audience reacts to it. Although most women who study bellydance don’t plan on performing publicly, if the occasion does arise, playing zils adds an impressive dimension. I’ve done many performances that won over an indifferent audience simply because I could move and play finger cymbals at the same time!

Unfortunately, bellydancing still has a bit of the ‘seductress’ image attached to it. That can be fine for nightclub, theatrical, or private performances, but it’s not appropriate for family audiences. For family audiences, playing zils takes people’s minds off that pre-conceived image and impresses on them the amount of dedication that goes into mastering the dance. They can see that it is a real art form, and seeing that helps focus their attention away from the dancer’s physical attributes and onto the artistic interplay of brass cymbals, music, and movement.

I do encourage my students to learn how to play finger cymbals, but I’m not a believer in having them use zils in their first lesson. I like to have the students get familiar with belly dance music and the basic belly dance movement vocabulary first. But once that’s accomplished, usually by the intermediate level, I encourage students to give finger cymbals a try. To zil or not to zil is a question that each dancer has a right to decide for herself. Either way, zils or no zils, her bellydancing can still be great.

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